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THEATER REVIEW: "Trouble In Mind" at Moxie Theatre

Comedy and drama, racial tension and brotherhood, truth and lies we must tell collide at Moxie Theatre in the local premiere of Alice Childress’ 1955 “Trouble In Mind.” Delicia Turner Sonnenberg turns in another fine directing job in this play, which runs through Feb. 22.

Childress, probably best known for her teen novel “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich,” was also an actress and civil rights activist. “Trouble In Mind,” in fact, was written the year Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus.

In this play-within-a-play, a racially diverse cast assembles for the first rehearsal of the anti-lynching play “Chaos In Belleville.” Middle-aged Wiletta Mayer (Monique Gaffney), thrilled to have finally landed a leading role, counsels young newcomer John Nevins (Vimel Sephus), starry-eyed and excited to be part of “the theater.”

“Show business, it’s just a business,” she says. “Colored folks ain’t in no theater,” and goes on to tell him how to get and keep a job in this white-dominated world: lie – about your experience, your opinion of the play you’re in, the lameness of the director’s jokes.

African-American cast members complain about the stereotypical roles they are offered. “I’ll wear them baggy cotton dresses,” says Millie Davis (Cashae Monya), “but damn if I’ll wear another bandanna.”

The first act is more comic than serious. As reading progresses in the second act, the racist elements of the script become clear and the play switches tone. Director Al Manners (Ruff Yeager) finds himself with a minor insurrection on his hands (incidentally foreshadowing the scuttling of the play itself from the Broadway schedule).

Gaffney’s Wiletta anchors the show with a steely determination and the voiced unwillingness to put up with nonsense any longer, though she walks a fine line when talking to her autocratic director. Yeager is amusing, especially as he tries to salvage his own racist gaffe.

Monya is charming and elegant as Millie, the clothes horse of the group. Justin Lang is fun to watch as the director’s harried harried assistant, Eddie Fenton.

Several other characters are underwritten – Samantha Ginn, as young, Yale Drama-educated Judy, who preaches brotherhood; old actor Sheldon (Victor Morris), theater doorman Henry (Tom Kilroy), white actor Bill O’Wray (Nick Young).

Moxie Theatre continues its tradition of excellent productions with “Trouble In Mind,” which seems remarkably relevant despite its age and flaws. It was, in fact, slated to become the first play by an African-American woman to hit Broadway, but when Childress refused to give her play the happy ending the producer requested, the show was canceled and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun” got that honor.

The details

“Trouble in Mind” plays through Feb. 22 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard.

Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (858) 598-7620 or click HERE.