Let’s Review: Moxie Theatre gives new life to 60-year-old play

Almost everyone knows that Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 hit, “A Raisin in the Sun,” was the first show by a black woman playwright to be staged on Broadway. But that distinction almost belonged to “Trouble in Mind,” a challenging play by Alice Childress (1916-1994) that had been optioned for Broadway, and would have appeared earlier that same season, if the writer had agreed to a number of changes, including a different ending.

She refused, the option was dropped, and “Trouble,” originally produced off-Broadway in 1955, with Childress directing, fell into obscurity, even after winning an Obie Award for best new play. Childress, a Tony-nominated actress before she became a playwright, wrote several more plays in her lifetime, but ended up being best-known for her 1973 young-adult novel, “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich.”

Lately, however, “Trouble” has been popping up in theaters all over the country, and now Moxie’s got it, with Monique Gaffney playing the troubled leading lady, Willeta Mayer.

Her trouble? She’s decades into a less-than-satisfying career as a singer-actress, forced to settle for stereotypical, mammy-like roles. She has now been cast in a new Broadway-bound play about the lynching of a young black man, overseen by a white producer/director, Al Manners, who fancies himself a liberal, but has more of the manner of a master sergeant.

The rehearsals of the play-within-the-play are fraught with tension; the whole company, black and white, bows to the director; like the kids in “A Chorus Line,” they really need this job. But Willeta desperately wants to change her character’s lines — singing, praying and talking her son into giving himself up to a white mob — is not, she insists, what any black mother would do. So the main confrontation is Mayer vs. Manners, a battle she can never really win.

Although “Trouble in Mind” and “Raisin in the Sun” both deal with racial issues, the similarity ends there.

“Raisin” is a domestic drama, exploring the problems within one black family, and their attempts to move up in the world. (Moxie’s production of that play was an award-winner in 2010.) “Trouble” is much more cynical, angrier and wider-ranging, dealing not only with black actors’ difficulties finding roles and recognition but also the emerging civil rights movement, macho attitudes toward women, the 1950’s blacklist, the high cost of truth-telling, and the viability of standing up for what one believes in, no matter what the cost.

Sadly, 60 years after “Trouble” was written, many of these issues are still relevant. Happily, the play isn’t a diatribe; it’s loaded with comic lines. And the cast, including Ruff Yeager as the producer/director, Tom Kilroy as the sympathetic, somewhat doddering doorman, and Victor Morris as the Uncle-Tom-ish actor Sheldon, is a potent ensemble, under the assured hand of Moxie’s founding artistic director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.

The most powerful moment in the play was the quietest: Sheldon’s recollection of a real lynching he witnessed as a child. The rest of the play is, one way or another, about performing; this part was not.

“Trouble in Mind” isn’t perfect, and I, too, had questions about the ending, although maybe not the same ones as its would-be producers years ago. But it’s definitely an experience that will have theater-goers thinking and talking about it.

IF YOU GO: “Trouble in Mind” is at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite N, 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 22. Tickets: $27 (discounts at (858) 598-7620.