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Originally published July 25, 2013 at 5:06 AM | Page modified July 25, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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‘Trouble in Mind’: A timely look at prejudice, principle

A review of “Trouble in Mind,” about an actress who must choose between principle and a plum role, at the 2013 Intiman Theatre Festival.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW

Intiman Theatre Festival: ‘Trouble in Mind’

By Alice Childress. Through Sept. 14, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 201 Mercer St.; ticket prices vary (888-377-4510 or intiman.org).

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The timing of Intiman Theatre Festival’s valuable revival of Alice Childress’ seriocomedy “Trouble in Mind” is certainly propitious.

With scathing wit and bold candor, “Trouble in Mind” stakes out territory where few playwrights, today or more than 50 years ago, have dared to tread.

In Childress’ subversion of a standard backstage comedy, a crew of actors rehearses a new Broadway drama about the lynching of a young black man in the South.

The liberal white director, Al (Tim Gouran), bristles when African-American leading lady Wiletta (Tracy Michelle Hughes) objects to some of the racial stereotypes and false assumptions in the well-meaning but offensively wrongheaded script.

Will Wiletta’s fellow actors, black and white, back her up, at the risk of their much-needed jobs? Can a frank dialogue exist and spark change?

Using theater as a metaphor for community, Childress gathers Americans from different realities to engage in a tense, awkward, but necessary conversation about the country’s racial divide.

In light of the exoneration of the suspicious neighbor who stalked and fatally shot Florida teen Trayvon Martin, and the candid comments about race in the U.S. by our first black president, it’s as if director Valerie Curtis-Newton consulted a crystal ball when she pitched “Trouble in Mind” to Intiman.

But one needn’t be psychic to predict the 1955 play’s current relevance. The cross-racial frictions and need for mutual dialogue delineated in Curtis-Newton’s sharply etched staging persist.

Childress’ vibrant characters and wry humor make “Trouble in Mind” enjoyable, and meaningful.

Hughes movingly conveys Wiletta’s frustrations as a gifted actor thrilled by her first Broadway break, but fed up with the insulting roles she’s confined to. You root for her as she works up the nerve to speak out. The cost is clear — and so is the courage.

G. Valmont Thomas is superb as Sheldon, an older player whose survival tools are avuncular humor and deference to white authority. Though he often provides comic relief, Sheldon’s harrowing memory of an actual lynching is a shiver-inducing dose of historical reality.

In rather stock (but not stale) parts, Shontina Vernon is the wily wisecracker (her riff on the floral names chosen for black film characters is hilarious), and Burton Curtis embraces the cliché of a kindly old Irish doorman.

Gouran wrestles with, and at times rushes through, the tough role of Al. He’s a Hollywood heavy distracted by personal problems, slavishly devoted to Method acting, and cringingly patronizing to black actors. But you need to feel his humanity too — even if t’s not always evident in Childress’ script.

More evident is her hope that two young white characters (played by Skylar Tatro and Adam Standley) are more receptive to Wiletta’s concerns — and to the incipient civil-rights movement.

Since 1955, many showbiz doors have opened to black performers that are shut tight for Wiletta. But if one feels pangs of recognition watching “Trouble in Mind,” it’s likely because there’s still much unfinished business and mutual misunderstanding to thrash out together — even if we do it reluctantly, painfully, awkwardly, in the theater and the wider world.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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