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THEATER REVIEW : 'Trouble in Mind' Plays on Racial Strain : Despite our faith in the progress in social reform, the staging by UC Santa Barbara shows tensions are still strong.

January 13, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The time is 1955. As a small company of actors--black and white--gathers for an early rehearsal of a new Broadway play, the racial tensions of the period manifest themselves despite the attempts of all concerned to be tactful and diplomatic.

Early on, Wiletta (Val Limar), a veteran actress who has made a career out of giving white directors and producers exactly what they wanted in black characters, offers some cautionary advice to John, a young actor (Guy A. Harrell) with aspirations of stardom.

Don't let the director know about the acting classes, she warns John. "They want us to be naturals . . . you know, just born with the gift. Course they want you to be experienced too. Tell 'em you was in the last revival of 'Porgy and Bess.' "

Using the backdrop of the theater to wreak playful havoc on racial stereotypes in American culture, Alice Childress's "Trouble in Mind" is a frequently hilarious though sometimes unsettling meditation on compromised truths and self-deception.

When John tells Wiletta her suggestion sounds kind of Uncle Tommish, she concedes the point, but says "they do it more than we do. They call it bein' a yes man."

Wiletta's delicately balanced rationalizations, however, start to unravel during a heated cast discussion in which she hears herself profess ignorance precisely the same way as the deferential character she's playing.

But Wiletta isn't the only one with plenty of rationalizations on hand to defend her prejudices.

A white actor (Joshua Haber) claims to have not "a prejudiced bone in my body," but won't eat lunch with his black co-stars because of the stares he gets in public.

The play's director, Al Manners (Benjamin King), practically beams with pride at his willingness to work with black performers--until Wiletta offers a genuine opinion about the play. "Darling, don't think," he replies smugly. "You're great until you start thinking. I don't expect you to. . . . "

Beneath the enlightened surface, we see the racism perpetuated even by the black performers. Particularly Sheldon (Michael Morgan), the senior cast member who is more concerned with upholding union rules and keeping jobs than defending Wiletta's opinions.

Childress's play made theatrical history in the mid-'50s as the first work by an African American woman to be produced professionally in the United States. And this staging by the UC Santa Barbara department of dramatic arts will mark another historical first of sorts when it moves to the Lobero Theatre this weekend, the first university production to reappear in an off-campus professional venue.

A better precedent-setting production would be difficult to imagine. Soaring on Limar and Morgan's poignant, funny and altogether engaging performances, the first-rate cast navigates the play's turbulence with professional assurance, and director Robert G. Egan has made sure the connections to our own time are all too apparent, despite our faith in the progress we've made after 40 years of social reform.

In revealing that those gains have been more in the way of diplomacy than true reconciliation, "Trouble in Mind" shows we've still got a long way to go.

Details

* WHAT: "Trouble in Mind"

* WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

* WHERE: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., in Santa Barbara.

* COST: $10.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (805) 963-0761.

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