Timeline Theatre Company Presents TROUBLE IN MIND Review — Trapped in a Minstrel-Show 2.0

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As soon as impeccably dressed Wiletta Mayer (Shariba Rivers) stores her stylish hat on the backstage shelf, she steps forward to deeply breathe in and linger with the promise of theater and her art.  It’s always the first thing she does, she explains to Henry (Charles Stransky), the 78-year-old stagehand-janitor-gofer helping to set up the rehearsal space.

In short order, that starry-eyed Wiletta vanishes to reveal the White-theater-world-weary Black woman who rebels against the many variations of maid roles that has been her lot.  When she meets young John Nevins (Vincent Jordan), she shares the rudiments of shuckin’ and jivin’ how-to’s needed to survive, as do each of her fellow Black cast members.  This plays out as the White cast members arrive, and the informality the Black cast members have amongst themselves fades. Like a cafeteria in a recently integrated junior high, the Black and White cast members inhabit separate worlds in the same rehearsal space.  

What they most share in common is the unbridled abuse from their ironically named Director/Producer, Al Manners (Tim Decker).    With a presumption of trying to evoke deeper and more raw emotions from the actors, he bellows commands to say lines again and again, bringing even seasoned actress Wiletta to near tears.  With long strides he moves back and forth across the stage, sometimes dragging cast members to different places as he savagely critiques their every line and gesture.  It’s as though he is a giant-sized pinball that moves the pinball machine flappers, instead of vice versa. 

In successive rehearsal scenes, we watch Manners’ galaxy-sized ego command the cast to bend to his will.  For the Black cast members this becomes quite literal, as they stoop and bend their bodies to smaller statures as if to give shape to their roles as the Whites’ lessers, that this script about a lynching allots them.    

Wiletta, cast as the mother of the lynched boy at the center of the story, lobbies for a script change in order to play a character with dignity.  Manners will have none of it.  As their battle royale unfolds, any notion you might have harbored that Manners is an equal opportunity abuser vanishes.  Playwright Alice Childress deftly reveals him to be the slave overseer of his day, wielding the whip of his power.  

Timeline Theatre Production is a Primer on Whiteness

In this writer’s view, Alice Childress’ nuanced script is an enduring primer on Whiteness, as searingly insightful today as in the 1950’s, when it was first produced.  The pitch perfect direction by OJ Parson seems to let every actor in this production shine, and especially gives Shariba Rivers an opportunity to deliver a tour de force performance.  In the intimate space of the Timeline Theatre, we easily see her tears well and her facial muscles quiver.  You too may feel that Rivers’ performance is what most plants the Wiletta Mayer character of Childress’ pen in our imagination. 

A tip from this reviewer is to make time to study the dramaturg-delivered lobby display of the history surrounding the play, as is the Timeline way.  It showcases the many Black performers of Childress’ day, often trapped in roles that fed White supremacist fantasies, from Beulah to Amos of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a part we learn was played by her real-world husband at the time, Alvin Childress. The script feels painfully real, and this display drives home just how intimately Childress knew her content.

Anyone who loves theater’s ability to say something important – as lead character Wiletta Mayer craves it to do—will be well-served by changing their schedule to see this show.

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Cast:

Shariba Rivers, Tim Decker, Charles Stransky, Guy Van Swearingen, Tarina J. Bradshaw, Kenneth D. Johnson, Jordan Ashley Grier, Vincent Jordan and Adam Shalzi.

Creative Team:

OJ Parson, DIRECTOR -- Caitlin McLeod (Scenic Designer, she/her), Christine Pascual (Costume Designer, she/her), Brandon Wardell (Lighting Designer, he/him), Christopher Kriz (Original Music and Sound Designer, he/him), Jennifer Wernau (Properties Designer, she/her), Megan E. Pirtle (Wig and Hair Designer, she/her), Martine Kei Green-Rogers (Dramaturg, she/her), DeRon S. Williams (Associate Director, Assistant Dramaturg, he/him), Dina Spoerl (Dramaturgical Display Designer, she/her) and Miranda Anderson (Stage Manager, she/her).

WHEN:

November 2 – December 18, 2022

WHERE:

TimeLine Theatre
615 W. Wellington Ave.
Chicago

TICKETS:

$42+

For more information and tickets visit the TimeLine Theatre website.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago.

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Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.

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