Guthrie's Trouble in Mind is a powerful American play

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"Microaggression" and "intersectionality" weren't exactly household words when Trouble in Mind premiered in 1955, but there were other ways to elucidate the complexities of discrimination. Alice Childress' play precisely illustrates the many forms privilege takes, and the interactions among them. It's about race, it's about gender, it's about generation, and, yes, it's about the theater.

Trouble in Mind

Guthrie Theater
$44-$64; $15-$49 previews

Trouble in Mind, now on the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage in a superb staging directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, is set at a Broadway theater where a play is being rehearsed. It's a piece with a message, and that message is that lynching is bad. No one onstage disagrees about that, but they have some differences regarding more insidious forms of injustice.

Al, the director of the play-within-a-play, is played by John Catron as a paragon of white male entitlement: unapologetic, because he doesn't think he has anything to apologize for. Flush with self-righteousness at having brought a work about social justice to the Great White Way, Al bristles at any suggestion that he's racist — even as his arrogant treatment of his cast drips with condescension.

Within the cast, there are also tensions. Wiletta (Margo Moorer) and Sheldon (Cleavant Derricks) are middle-aged African American actors who are hardened to the reality that they need to flatter and defer to white directors. Their younger black co-stars Millie (Austene Van) and John (Marcel Spears) want to break that mold, and the word "Tom" comes roaring out in pained voices.

The white actors include Bill (Peter Thomson), a veteran actor who swears he's not a racist (he just doesn't want to go out for lunch with his fellow cast members because he can't eat when he's being stared at), and the young Judy (Chloe Armao) — who knows damn well why Al keeps trying to pull her into his office for conferences about character and motivation.

The play is carefully built to reveal several different fault lines, but never feels over-determined. Denied its own Broadway bow because Childress, in her words, refused to give the producers "the heartwarming little story they wanted," Trouble in Mind is a bracing two hours that speaks truths on multiple fronts at once while also managing to be tremendously entertaining.

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Making her Guthrie debut, Curtis-Newton introduces Moorer, Derricks, and Spears to Big Blue as well — and leaves us wondering how soon they can come back. The proud, agonizingly compromised Wiletta is a showcase role; Moorer captures both the majesty of her character's gift and the angry confusion of a woman who's spent her life negotiating moment-to-moment for the right to use that gift.

It's part of the job of an artistic director to say nice things about plays his company is presenting, but when Joseph Haj writes in his program note that Trouble in Mind is "a major American play," it's a statement that comes by the show's end to seem as obvious as calling A Christmas Carol a "cherished holiday tradition." You owe it to yourself to not miss the opportunity to see this fine production of a crucial work by a still-underrated playwright.


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