Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s 'Trouble in Mind' Addresses Racial Stereotyping and Sexism in Theater

“I was gobsmacked by how specific and relevant this play is now. Especially for Black actresses."

May 3, 2023 at 5:11 am
click to enlarge Candice Handy playing Wiletta Mayer in Trouble in Mind - Photo: Mikki Schaffner
Photo: Mikki Schaffner
Candice Handy playing Wiletta Mayer in Trouble in Mind

This story is featured in CityBeat's May 3 print edition.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is in the business of staging classic plays, but its upcoming production of a play by Alice Childress could well be one that’s not all that familiar to many theatergoers, despite premiering in 1955 in an award-winning, off-Broadway production. In 1957 the darkly comic Trouble in Mind was on the brink of being the first Broadway play by a Black woman when Childress pulled it back after producers tried to shape it with a new title, So Early Monday Morning, and a less confrontational ending that would be more palatable to white audiences. After trying to give the show a more pleasant resolution due to producer and directorial pressure, Childress was disgusted by the changes that were turning it into “a heartwarming little story.” She preferred to keep her more realistic tale intact when her script was re-published in 1971, and insisted that all future productions use that version.

For decades, Trouble in Mind was seldom produced, until the 21st Century, when its still-relevant themes could not be denied. At Cincy Shakes, it’s being directed by Torie Wiggins, a prolific theater professional whose own play, Who All Over There?, just had its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. Wiggins has performed as an actor on many local stages.

Trouble in Mind tells the backstage story of a play about a crew of actors rehearsing a new Broadway drama, Chaos in Belleville, supposedly condemning the lynching of a young Black man in the South but soft-pedaling its harshest message. The liberal white director butts heads when the Black leading actor playing Wiletta Mayer, the young man’s mother, pushes back against his reliance on racial stereotypes and false assumptions in a script that might have been well-intended, but was in fact horrendously wrongheaded. 

“I was gobsmacked by how specific and relevant this play is now,” Wiggins said in a recent phone conversation with CityBeat about the show’s exposition of sexism and racism. “Especially for Black actresses. Parallel with this main character, I have run into these stereotypes even today, 60 years since Childress wrote it. It’s still a thing that actresses of color have to navigate.” 

Wiggins is quick to say that many age-old stereotypes, such as playing maids, are a thing of the past. “But there are still so many assumptions, for instance, about being maternal. We rarely get to be romantic leads or to play a character who finds her way.” Wiggins, an Atlanta native and 2003 graduate of the acting program at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music who has adopted Cincinnati as her artistic home, says too often Black actresses don’t get to engage in the full spectrum of storytelling. As rehearsals have unfolded for the show, Wiggins said, “Everyday, something clicked.” 

Leading the cast of conflicted actors in Chaos in Belleville is another veteran Black Cincinnati performer, Candice Handy, playing Wiletta. Wiggins said, “Candice is well suited for this role. It’s refreshing to look her in the eye and recognize that we have parallel perspectives.” Justin McCombs plays the supposedly liberal director who shallowly insists he doesn’t see color: “Black, white, green or purple. I maintain there’s only one race. The human race,” McCombs says as the liberal director in Trouble in Mind. All the while, he bullies the Belleville actors despite their resistance toward stereotypical performances to make the story more palatable to white audiences.

Wiggins admits that it’s a challenge to juggle the complexities of Childress’s script. “It’s almost like I’m directing two plays since it’s a play about a play. I’m giving direction to an actor who’s playing an actor, so sometimes it’s hard to keep things straight. On the other hand, this presents two sets of themes and two sets of stereotypes, so it’s pretty interesting.”

A year ago Wiggins starred in a one-woman performance at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati of Kathy Y. Wilson’s Your Negro Tour Guide. She cited the common ground between Childress’s play and the late CityBeat columnist’s writing: “Kathy did her battle with a society that won’t let stereotypes die. She saw how plays and movies too often impose a safe place to keep us when we aren’t magical.”

Why is Trouble in Mind important today? Wiggins says, “I guess I must sound like a broken record, but this is still relevant; these things are still happening. As my grandma used to say, ‘A steady drip of water on a rock will make a groove.’” That’s what makes this classic play all the more essential nearly 60 years later. 

Trouble in Mind, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, will run May 12-June 3 at the Otto M. Budig Theater, 1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Info: cincyshakes.com.


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