Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Trouble in Mind
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Review by Rick Pender

Also see Scott's recent review of Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Candace Handy and Justin McCombs
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Billing itself as a "classic" theatre company, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company extends its offerings to far more than the plays of William Shakespeare. It frequently stages other classical theatrical works from America and beyond. Such is the case with its current production of Alice Childress's Trouble in Mind, written and staged Off-Broadway in 1955. Planned for a 1956 Broadway debut–which would have been the first Broadway production of a play by a Black woman–the production never happened when Childress withdrew it, objecting to demands by producers to tone down its fierce criticisms of racism and sexism. Her insistence on maintaining this material in her script meant that for decades Trouble in Mind received few productions beyond university stages. New York City's Roundabout Theatre Company finally gave the show its Broadway premiere in 2021, demonstrating that Childress's script is a powerful work with important contemporary meaning.

Cincinnati Shakespeare's production is a further testament to the relevance of this show , which Childress called a "drama-comedy." It's the backstage tale of rehearsals for a supposedly well-meaning, anti-lynching drama, Chaos in Bellville. We watch a mixed race cast of six struggling with an egotistical director and his frustrated stage manner. Often the performers evoked chuckles but also revealed their discomfort regarding caustic racial and gender stereotyping.

On a cluttered backstage set (realistically designed by Shannon Robert and Matthew Leckenbusch with a warm but shopworn hardwood floor), veteran actor Wiletta Mayer (Candice Handy) meets Henry the elderly doorman (Joneal Joplin), who recalls seeing her onstage two decades earlier. More cast members arrive, beginning with John Nevins (Brandon Burton), a generation younger that Wiletta. He will play her son in Chaos, pursued by a lynch mob following his effort to register to vote. Wiletta advises John to be deferential to the production's imperious white director Al Manners (Justin McCombs).

Soon they are joined by the remaining cast members: flighty Millie Davis (Brianna Miller); veteran Sheldon Forrester (Warren Jackson), who's opposed to rocking the boat; and sweetly innocent Judy Sears (Courtney Lucien), fresh out of Yale Drama School and brimming with naëëve idealism. Bill O'Wray (Matthew Lewis Johnson), a nervous actor playing Judy's character's father Renard, arrives in the second act, which opens with him practicing a lengthy monologue revealing some patronizing opinions.

Rehearsals do not go smoothly as Manners' domineering ways–laced with undercurrents of racism and sexism–make everyone uncomfortable and are repeatedly met with objections by Wiletta regarding the stereotyped roles all are being asked to play. McCombs, known for his comic skills in many Cincinnati Shakespeare productions, handles this condescending and arrogant role with expertise, mistreating stage manager Eddie (played with frustration by Carey Davenport) and doorman Henry–as well as his cast. Sears denies any prejudice on his part and defends the shallow script they are rehearsing. But his overbearing behavior reveals attitudes implicitly rooted in disregard for the actors' concerns.

Wiletta most sharply articulates these objections. She is being asked to play a woman who gives her son over to an angry crowd, assured by her white employer that he'll ensure the young man will be protected, a guarantee that is patently false. Wiletta, abandoning her earlier advice to John to acquiesce to the director's demands, pushes back, arguing that no loving mother would willingly allow her son's life to be placed in such jeopardy. Handy powerfully and convincingly inhabits the role of Wiletta, whose professional potential has been repeatedly thwarted by stereotypical casting. She chafes from the early moments of the story, building up pressure and finally boiling over midway through the second act. Only in her philosophical conversations with Henry, the elderly doorman whose age and Irish roots have been treated with prejudice, does she find a kindred spirit. He encourages her to imagine delivering a powerful speech, which she does–with a heartfelt, glowing recital of Psalm 133 to an imaginary audience as the show's closing moment.

At the peak of chaotic discord in the rehearsal process, Warren Jackson's Sheldon recalls observing a lynching as a five-year-old child. In a sobering monologue, he conveys both a child's innocent perspective and an understanding of the corrosive impact the event had on his life. Childress' use of this device subtly points to how reality should not be swept under the carpet by the superficial and unthinking good intentions expressed in the script that is being rehearsed.

Trouble in Mind is directed by veteran actor and playwright Torie Wiggins, who has become a go-to resource for shows that delve with insight and finesse into issues of race and gender. Surely rooted in her own experiences as a performer of color, Wiggins' genuine and thoughtful staging of this historic play with an accomplished and diverse cast is further evidence of her impact on Cincinnati theatre.

Although the story Alice Childress told in Trouble in Mind is rooted in attitudes and prejudices just beginning to be resisted in the early years of the Civil Rights movement nearly 60 years ago, this play–and Cincinnati Shakespeare's production–is a reminder that it's a long, slow, uphill battle to overcome these issues and change behaviors.

Trouble in Mind runs through June 3, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1194 Elm Street, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-381-2273.