First performed in 1955, Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind is still depressingly relevant today. A poignant exploration of the many insidious facets of racism, the play examines the uncomfortable ways in which those who profess acceptance and understanding can actually perpetuate racial stereotypes. Though the themes were pertinent, this production at the Coronet’s Print Room theatre is unfortunately a little too hammy which means that certain nuances of character and script get lost.
The play takes place at the rehearsals of “Chaos in Belleville”, a toe-curlingly awful Broadway play about the “history” of racism in the American Deep South. Al Manners, a tyrannical, egotistic white director (Jonathan Slinger), quite literally commands a cast of predominantly black actors with deep insensitivity. Each actor is forced to behave sycophantically, flattering Al, obeying his every order and complying with the offensive stereotypes that he thrusts upon him or her.
The few white actors in the “Chaos in Belleville” are less overtly bigoted than the director but act with a decided superiority nonetheless. Judy, played by Daisy Boulton, is a privileged and rather shrill Yale drama graduate who waxes lyrical about the frightful treatment of African-Americans, yet is totally oblivious to her own latent prejudices.
We open as Wiletta (Tanya Moodie) enters the theatre. Doe-eyed and wistful, she gazes dreamily at the audience and sighs; her passion for theatre is palpable. Her first exchange with the theatre’s caretaker, Henry (Pip Donaghy), reveals that she has graced this stage before, many years ago; that her career has since struggled but that her love of acting has propelled her. Wiletta’s encounters with Henry showcase some of the play’s best dialogue. Henry is hardworking and humble, displaying none of the better-than attitude of other white characters.
It soon becomes apparent that Wiletta is deeply jaded and resentful of the bigoted world that has inhibited her success. She understands the role she has to play to get by: “white folks can’t stand unhappy negroes,” she tells idealistic newcomer John Nevins (Ncuti Gatwa), “so laugh”.
As the play goes on, the depths of Al’s horrendously disrespectful attitude deepen. He disregards the black actors’ questions and requests, he leers at the women and he deliberately humiliates his cast. One particularly heartbreaking scene sees him cruelly embarrass the dapper older actor Sheldon Forrester (Ewart James Walters), for ordering jelly doughnuts.
The script itself, which made Childress the first African-American woman to be awarded an Obie Award for an off-Broadway production, has moments of brilliance. However, the complex and searing poignant message about the cavalier, off-hand racism that permeates our everyday language and attitudes is communicated without much subtlety or nuance. The character of Al, for example, is so abjectly awful in every sense that he becomes something of a caricature. Director Laurence Boswell also over-uses certain tropes, such as an interjection by a black character followed by stony silence, so that it becomes almost cliché.
Though the play had a lot to say, this production didn’t quite live up to its potential.
Trouble in Mind played at the Print Room until October 14 2017.
Photo: Hugo Glendinning