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- Title: Trouble in Mind
- Written by: Alice Childress
- Director: Philip Akin
- Actors: Nafeesa Monroe, Graeme Somerville
- Company: Shaw Festival
- Venue: Studio Theatre
- City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- Year: To October 9, 2021
Trouble in Mind, now getting as perfectly pitched a production as you could ask for at the Shaw Festival, is one of those older plays that make you might blink at your program in disbelief when you see the year it was written in.
The backstage tragicomedy by the Black American playwright Alice Childress had its premiere in 1955 – but, if you didn’t know that, you might mistake it for a direct commentary on all that has come to the surface in the theatre world during the past four years.
It’s a reminder of just how overdue the #MeToo movement, the renewed racial reckoning fuelled by Black Lives Matter and the industry turn against bullying that recently sidelined producer Scott Rudin on Broadway have all been.
Trouble in Mind depicts the rising tension in rehearsals for a play with an “anti-lynching message” headed to Broadway.
Wiletta Mayer (Nafeesa Monroe), a mid-career Black actress, is the first to arrive on the first day of rehearsals; John (Kaleb Alexander), a young Black actor straight out of school, is second.
Before anyone else gets there, Wiletta unloads career advice on John about how to thrive in New York theatre: Laugh at all the director’s jokes, and always say you were in the last revival of Porgy and Bess.
John is baffled by Wiletta’s cynicism. “You’re in it, aren’t you proud to be a part of it all?” he asks.
Wiletta: Of what all?
Wiletta: Show business, it’s just a business. Coloured folks ain’t in no theatre.
The way the white male director Manners (Graeme Somerville) behaves at rehearsal certainly seems to justify Wiletta’s skepticism about the stage as art.
Manners talks a grandiose game about the importance of the play’s message, but in practice he’s a flatterer to some, bully to others – and immediately starts playing power games to gain control of the room.
He quickly singles out young white female cast member Judy (Kristi Frank) as his scapegoat, unleashing a toxic mix of harassment upon her. He does or says provocative things – justifying them by the instinctual reactions he gets out of his actors in response.
It’s a testament to both Somerville’s performance and Childress’s writing that Manners, despite his obvious tyrannical nature, does not seem unskilled at getting what he wants from his actors.
Trouble in Mind was written and takes place during a time when acting is changing and the Method is in the ascendant – and Manners is eager for his cast to bring what he calls “truth” to their performances.
The younger actors know what he means by needing to “justify” each line, but Wiletta is at first baffled by the director’s desire for her to go beyond her time-tested, superficial performance style.
She says, essentially, what Laurence Olivier (according to showbiz lore) did to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man after seeing him immerse himself in the Method: “Why don’t you just try acting?”
But, jaded as she pretends to be, Wiletta is a hard worker and curious, and begins to try the new techniques. Manners gets exactly what he wishes for from Wiletta: truth, but in the form of a truth bomb that threatens to blow up the whole production.
Everything I’d read about Trouble in Mind – a once-neglected play that is also set to have an overdue Broadway debut this season – led me to expect a dark, satirical comedy.
But Childress takes her subject matter seriously – which led me to realize how rare it is to see a play about the theatre that does. You’re more likely to see backstage farces, which are often honest about sexism, racism and bullying in the theatre, but mostly laugh it all off and, as the cliché goes, end up as “love letters to the theatre.”
Childress’s tone, in director Philip Akin’s excellent production acted by an impeccable ensemble, often feels more akin with Anton Chekhov.
From an older Black actor who throws away all his own concerns about the play or the process as “jokes” (David Alan Anderson) to a white stagehand trying to hold on to his dignity in old age (Peter Millard), all the supporting characters are beautifully drawn, comedic from one angle, tragic from another.
When an older, successful actor (Patrick Galligan) complains to his white colleagues about how he can’t joke about anything any more, it’s not a gag; it’s a depiction of that kind of individual, and you’re either going to laugh at the guy, be disgusted by him, or nod your head along with him.
Akin’s production is very effective at making an audience feel the drama of each moment of discomfort. The air keeps leaving the room.
In a case of art imitating art, Trouble in Mind was almost the very first play written by a Black woman to transfer to Broadway – but meddling in the script by white producers interfered with it getting to the Great White Way.
Childress, who broke many other barriers as a writer and director, was skeptical of such “first” milestones anyway. “It’s almost like it’s an honour rather than a disgrace,” she said in 1972.
I mean it in the best way possible, then, to describe the Shaw Festival’s production of Trouble in Mind as a disgrace for being, likely, the first ever in Canada.
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