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Ohio State play a ‘cautionary tale’ on race

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Tameishia Peterson as Wiletta and Daniel Shtivelberg as Manners in a scene from The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Trouble in Mind. Credit: Courtesy of Matt Hazard

Tameishia Peterson as Wiletta and Daniel Shtivelberg as Manners in a scene from The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Trouble in Mind.
Credit: Courtesy of Matt Hazard

In the mid-1950s, playwright Alice Childress wrote a play about a play that tells a story of racism and one actress’s battle within herself to either conform or to take a stand for herself.

“Trouble in Mind” is the story about a fictional African-American actress, Wiletta Mayer, who is forced to play limited roles, such as characters that only wear headscarves and are never able to dress up.

Though it’s set in 1957, “Trouble in Mind” carries themes that its producers said are relevant today.

The play comes to OSU this week in a Department of Theatre production directed by Melissa Maxwell and will be performed by OSU undergraduate students.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with students. It’s something I’m passionate about as a professional director,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell said the most interesting challenge was directing the play within the play.

“What’s remarkable about it is that, though it’s a classic play, it’s not very well-known by many, so that was fun and interesting. The benchmark of any classic play is that a lot of what goes on in the play are still very relevant to today,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell invited Koritha Mitchell, an associate professor in the Department of English and specialist in African-American literature, to teach the students who are performing in “Trouble in Mind” more about its history.

“The thing is any time you’re working on a period piece, there’s a lot to educate them to,” Maxwell said, “It’s a different era. There’s a lot they just don’t know about because its before their time, and yet I tried to relate it to their time.”

After the play’s performance on Thursday, a discussion will be held to discuss “Trouble in Mind.” It will be moderated by the dramaturg and assistant director Shelby Brewster, and Mitchell will join Maxwell in answering questions about the play.

“What I like about the play is the strength of Wiletta as a character,” Mitchell said. “What’s important about her voice is that she highlights how, despite the years of experience she has, that doesn’t create more opportunity for her. While an upstart white person can come along and be a director on Broadway, because Broadway is a white space, it doesn’t matter that she has these years of experience and has been in show business. She is always going to be seen in a certain category.”

In an email, Brewster said the struggles that Mayer faces as an African-American actress in the 1950s remain issues for contemporary actors.

“Mayer struggles to justify her beliefs with the parts she has to play. I think contemporary actors face the same problems, as they are often typecast,” Brewster said.

Elements of satire are included in “Trouble in Mind” to show the absurdity of racism, Mitchell said.

“Some of the things that are funny are also very troubling,” Mitchell said. “I would hope that this play about a play, this commentary on institutions, would be something that people would apply to all the institutions in which they involved.”

In the play, Mayer is continually degraded by the director, Al Manners, who is a middle-aged white man.

“I think that he represents a white person who sees themselves as liberal and opened-minded, yet doesn’t see that he doesn’t see other people as equal,” Mitchell said. “He lacks self-awareness that I think Childress would suggest is encouraged in white men in America.”

Maxwell said “Trouble in Mind” highlights the dangers of both false narratives and the perpetuation of stereotypes, calling it a “cautionary tale.” The false narratives, she said, are derived from Manners’ character, which inaccurately represent the culture of black people in the south.

“Our main character learns she has to take a stand, that simply getting paid good money to play characters that aren’t true to your culture or your history, isn’t enough, that she has to say no at some point and be true to herself,” Maxwell said.

“Trouble in Mind” will be performed Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. and March 10-12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Roy Bowen Theatre in the Drake Performance and Event Center.

Tickets are $20 for the general public, $18 for OSU faculty, staff, alumni and seniors, and $15 for OSU students and children.

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