Alice Childress (1920-1994) didn’t get much recognition during her lifetime. She won acclaim as an actress in the 1940s but was dissatisfied with stereotyped roles, so she began writing plays. Trouble in Mind, presented in 1955, made her the first woman to win an OBIE award, but it never landed on to Broadway and was forgotten for years. Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., recently revived Trouble, and thanks to a prescient artistic decision, Northern Kentucky University chose the show for this season. Faculty member Mark Hardy has staged a sterling production.
Barbour-Payne plays Wiletta, an experienced actress weary of the same stereotypes that fueled Childress’s frustration. Wiletta has been cast in a production of a sympathetic but patronizing play about blacks and whites, and she constantly battles the arrogant director (Sam Rueff) about the truth behind the story.
An idealistic young actor (Terrance E. McCraney), a veteran performer simply wanting to work (Romeo Armand Seay) and a woman trying to make her own way as an actress (Suzanne Sefinatu Ayoka Blunk) add perspectives to the debate, as do a young white woman whose character feels empathy for the plight of “negroes” (Laura Madden) while her misguided father (Chris Bishop) is played by a man whose racism is only thinly veiled.
The rehearsal process disintegrates as tensions mount. Wiletta simply wants to be heard, and the play’s powerful finale — an elderly theater employee convinces her to speak alone onstage — allows her the grandeur she yearns for. She recites from Psalm 133, “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Ironically, the only response to her magnificence is a track of tape-recorded applause. But the message lands solidly, and the stirring performances of Barbour-Payne and the cast around her make this production definitely worth seeing.
TROUBLE IN MIND, presented by Northern Kentucky University, continues through Sunday, Nov. 6.