Trouble in Mind; Odd Songs and Rare Theatricals | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Trouble in Mind; Odd Songs and Rare Theatricals 

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TROUBLE IN MIND

Gadfly Ethnic Theatre

at the Broadway Arts Center

ODD SONGS AND RARE THEATRICALS

at the Red Lion Pub

Black actress Alice Childress began writing out of frustration--she was fed up with the predictability of plays with racial themes.

"The 'black' would do one thing, the 'white' another thing, and, of course, by the end they would all come together and resolve their differences--packaged solutions," she said in an interview published recently in Interviews With Contemporary Women Playwrights.

Trouble in Mind, which won Childress the first Obie award for play writing in 1954, is representative of her attempts to do something about the situation. Set in 1957, the play traces the early rehearsals of an interracial Broadway show. As faults are exposed in the script they are working on (namely, those "packaged solutions"), tensions split the cast and production team, dividing not only blacks and whites, but also blacks who accept the status quo and those who are bucking it.

Wiletta Mayer, an established singer/actress, advises John Nevins, the young educated black lead, to be a yes-man if he really wants to go somewhere in the business. He accuses Wiletta of being an Uncle Tom, but he heeds her advice.

But when rehearsals begin, Wiletta begins to regret her words. She starts to see the wrongness in a play that reflects absurd ethnic stereotypes, and she throws a wrench in the rehearsal process by refusing to be quiet about it.

The other characters display a wide range of attitudes toward the conflict. Actress Millie Davis sides with Wiletta but keeps her mouth shut. Sheldon Forrester, who is playing John's father, seems too stupid to understand what's going onthough he isn't. Judy Sears, the white ingenue who is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, rallies the other whites behind her when she finally tires of the implied digs at white people. And the director argues that the American public will not stomach black people onstage unless the actors conform to their stereotypes.

And finally, an old Irish doorman shows us that the issue is not really black versus white, but rather the oppressed of all races versus their oppressors. It's pretty potent stuff.

But in the hands of Gadfly Ethnic Theatre it's a mess. When one character says "Oh, I'm so weary," art and life truly merge. Sitting through this Trouble in Mind is excruciating.

Director David G. Robinson must shoulder most of the blame. His stilted, nonsensical staging destroys any sense of cohesion. He sacrifices the script to meaningless bits. For instance, Robinson makes a major gag out of Sheldon's inability to sing. But this is supposed to be Broadway! And Sheldon is an older actor, established in the business, the Equity deputy . . . It doesn't make any sense!

The actors do nothing to help the play out, shamelessly mugging and making no attempt to motivate their actions. Particularly excruciating is Tom Elliott's Henry the doorman. Granted, most older actors in Chicago are Equity. But surely they could have found someone with certain of the qualities of maturity. Elliott apparently believes that sprayed white hair and an affected limp are qualities enough.

Tonia Jackson as Millie is the only performer who manages to escape the aura of amateurism. Her choices are always clear, motivated, and honest.

To be fair, a few moments jolted me out of my nap. David Barr's monologue (as Sheldon Forrester) about a lynching he'd watched when he was nine years old is quite beautiful, albeit far too lengthy. And when the textual problems first become apparent in rehearsal, the room fills with palpable tension.

But none of that saves a dreadful evening of theater.

Short and silly, Odd Songs and Rare Theatricals aims strictly to entertain. Billed as an English music-hall-style revue and put together by performers Will Clinger and James Fitzgerald, this show is a combination of comedy sketches and songs. Some are original, and even the numbers that aren't at least keep the title's promise--Tom Lehrer and Randy Newman, as opposed to Cole Porter.

Though their material is not always brilliant, Clinger and Fitzgerald have managed to find just the right place and atmosphere for it in the tiny upstairs space at the Red Lion. Beforehand, Fitzgerald tends bar and Clinger takes care of tickets. By the time the show starts, everyone is already friends.

The tour de force is a combination of songs and sketches exposing various national dispositions during the 20s and 30s. It brings to mind the Beyond the Fringe routines, Clinger and Fitzgerald being reasonable facsimiles of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Clinger does an upper-class English twit who reminisces (between riotous songs) about the beatings he received in a variety of countries by all the great literary minds of the time: Hemingway in Paris, Faulkner in Switzerland, and Fitzgerald in the United States.

They also send up crime in Chicago with music from The Wizard of Oz. "If I Only Had a Gun" could become the new vigilante theme song.

Fitzgerald has the feisty charm of young James Cagney, while lanky Clinger is sort of a funny Gary Cooper. Their best work is their sustained bits, rather than single songs or short skits. The two do a hilarious medley of chauvinistic tunes--from Mac Davis's "Baby, baby, don't get hooked on me" to Engelbert Humperdinck's "After the Lovin'"--whose premise is that to get laid you have to be an asshole.

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