Though she wrote Trouble in Mind in 1955, Alice Childress's play about backstage racial turbulence on Broadway feels startlingly contemporary—so much so that my companion to the theater (a newly minted PhD and no dummy) was shocked to hear it was written more than half a century ago. It's difficult to decide whether that's a testament to Childress's power as a writer, a depressing indication of how far we haven't come since then, or both.
Tracy Michelle Hughes plays Wiletta, a middle-aged African American actor who's agreed to star in a new "colored show," written and directed by white people, about a lynching. Trouble is a wonderfully nasty satire of the backstage politics of any theater endeavor—the vanity, the banter, the obsequiousness of financially desperate actors to a bullying director—but its ballast is in Hughes's polyphonic performance as an actor who loves her job, but slowly realizes that she cannot bring herself to play another white misconception of a Southern black woman. In a dynamite monologue toward the end, when she's lost all patience with everyone (except the gentle and ancient Irish janitor), she falls in and out of "character roles" she's played throughout her life and eviscerates each one in turn: "Dear little baby of the folks I work for," she coos to an imaginary white infant, "I got a present for you... MY WHOLE DAMN LIFE!"
G. Valmont Thomas also shines as Sheldon, an older and eager-to-please African American actor who, he reveals late in the show, is the only one who's actually seen a lynching. Tim Gouran expertly plays the harried and pompous white director who thinks he's equality-minded, but whose manner is laced with white-male condescension. The comedy and pathos dodge back and forth like a shuttle, thanks to deft direction from Valerie Curtis-Newton. If you see one thing in this summer's theater festival at Intiman, see Trouble in Mind.