Stage Door Review

Trouble in Mind

Sunday, September 5, 2021

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by Alice Childress, directed by Philip Akin

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 21-October 9, 2021

“No confusion in that land where I'm bound” (from “Go With Me To That Land”, traditional gospel song)

Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress is the first must-see play to emerge in the Shaw Festival’s 2021 season. It speaks so directly to present concerns about race and representation, it’s hard to believe it was written in 1955. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) is celebrated as the first play by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. But Trouble in Mind would have had that accolade in 1957 if Childress had made the changes to her script that the producers demanded to make it more palatable for White audiences. She did not and the producers dropped the play. The irony is that Trouble in Mind deals precisely with the question of what compromises Black actors are willing to make to pursue a career in the theatre.

The action is set on the stage of a Broadway theatre in 1957. The printed edition of the play says 1957 in ironic tribute when Childress’s own revised play would have opened on Broadway. Childress’s play is written in the realist mode that still remains the dominant mode in American drama, but it goes beyond most plays of its time in its metatheatricality. It is a play about a play. A mixed-race cast is rehearsing the (fictitious) play Chaos in Belleville, written by a White playwright and directed by a White director about the lives of Black people in the post-Reconstruction South. It is conceived of by the writer and the director as an anti-lynching play since it portrays sympathetically a young Black character who has enlisted in the US Army but is lynched by a White mob for his desire to exercise his right to vote.

The title of Trouble in Mind comes from the title of a vaudeville blues song by Black pianist Richard M. Jones from 1924. The song with its unsettling lines about suicide did not become a Top 40 hit until Dinah Washington recorded it in 1952. This link between vaudeville and the 1950s appears on stage in the person of the elderly White character Henry (Peter Millard). We see him clearing the stage of assorted props to make it suitable for a rehearsal. Henry loves the theatre. As we learn later, his father had been in vaudeville and Henry has remained in theatre as a stage electrician. Now he is just the stage doorman. Childress uses Henry to represent the descent of a theatre worker from prominence to nonentity.  Director Philip Akin emphasizes Henry’s drudgery by giving Henry such a large quantity of detritus to move.

In the midst of Henry’s work steps the veteran Black actor Wiletta Mayer (Nafeesa Monroe). Henry is awestruck to be on the same stage with her since he so admired her performances when they happened to work in the same shows. Though it is clear that Wiletta does not remember Henry, she pretends she does when she sees it means so much to him.

Next to enter is a new young Black male actor John Nevins (Kaleb Alexander). He is full of excitement and enthusiasm, but Wiletta feels the need to tamp these feelings down. To get ahead he will have to laugh at whatever the Man (i.e. the White Man in charge) thinks is funny. When asked his opinion of the script, he will have to agree with Man’s opinion. He also can’t expect to have any input into the direction.

When longtime Black character actor Millie Davis (Kiera Sangster) joins them, John becomes even more crestfallen as Millie ridicules the roles Black actors are given in plays by White authors. She says that in one play all she was asked to do was to cry out “Lord a’ mercy!” at significant moments. When Millie and another older Black character actor Sheldon Forrester read the script, they both stop to laugh at the word “if’n”, a contraction White authors seem think that Black people use.

When the White director Al Manners (Graeme Somerville) arrives, he brings with him an air of intensity and volatility. He impresses on the cast how important the play is for its anti-lynching message and he demands that the cast give up its old habits of acting to try his new technique which, he believes, delivers more natural results. Basically, Manners’s technique is a form of Method acting. Manners will place the actors in uncomfortable situations on a person-to-person basis and then ask them to use the emotion they felt in reading their lines. Early on Manners has Wiletta pick up a piece of paper that he had thrown on the floor. Wiletta finds the situation humiliating and the whole cast is aghast, but it elicits exactly the emotions Manners wants Wiletta to use in her scene with young White ingenue Judy Sears (Kristi Frank).

Soon it appears that Manners’s means of directing through humiliation is not so much a matter of art as of his personality. He seems to embarrass Judy deliberately by coming on to her in front of the whole cast. When the stage manager Eddie Fenton (Neil Barclay) tells Manners’s ex-wife where he is, Manners slaps him and calls him stupid in front of everyone. When Henry brings back the wrong kind of pastry from the store, he heaps opprobrium on him incommensurate with his mistake.

In Act 2, occurring three days after Act 1, we meet well-known White actor Bill O’Wray (Patrick Galligan), who plays Judy’s father in the drama. His speech against lynching includes the line, “if we believe we are superior we have to show them we are superior” – a racist rationale clearly pitched at a White audience. More troubling is that Bill himself seems to believe this idea and finds excuses not to eat lunch with the Black cast members.

While some cast members like John are still clearly buoyed up by the excitement of acting and by the praise he has received, Wiletta has become so disturbed that she cannot perform her part properly. Contrary to her own advise to John to act “Uncle Tommish” in relation to the Man, she has looked closely at the script and has seen that the White playwright has placed responsibility for the lynching on the ignorance and passivity of the Black characters while depicting Bill’s character as a potential saviour.

Wiletta’s pleading with Manners to have the author rewrite the script is met with Manner’s derision and growing anger. Sheldon’s account of a real lynching that he witnessed when only a boy causes everyone to pause and reflect while showing up Chaos in Belleville for the worthless, pandering, melodramatic play it is. Only chaos in the rehearsal room can follow.

Philip Akin’s incisive direction makes the strongest possible case for Trouble in Mind not merely as a forgotten play by a Black female author, but as an unjustly neglected masterpiece of American drama. One notes that reviews of the original and of subsequent productions mention the abundant humour in the play. There is humour and what we see of Chaos in Belleville shows it to be a clichéd Southern melodrama more suitable to the 1910s or 1920s than the 1950s. He allows Millie to be the one source of humorous comment on the action, but otherwise focusses on the contrast between the living, fully-rounded people we see as actors and the foolish stereotypes they are forced to play as characters. Even the White actors play stereotypes although, chillingly, Judy as the virginal Southern belle and Bill as the authoritarian plantation owner contrast with the Black characters who are all viewed as underprivileged, uneducated and prone to turn to to religion for help rather than even imagine individual or group action.

Akin has assembled a flawless ensemble cast of the kind that has always been the Shaw Festival’s greatest strength. Though the cast works as an ensemble, Childress clearly makes Wiletta the focus of the action. She undergoes the greatest emotional and attitudinal change in the course of the play and Nafeesa Monroe gives a superb performance that details how this change occurs. Monroe first presents Wiletta as a carefree but cynical actor wise to the ways of currying the Man’s favour and thus of getting ahead in the “business”. Yet, despite Wiletta’s telling John that for coloured folk there is no “theatre”, only “show business”, Monroe also shows that Wiletta has a deep need to do something great in the theatre that her flip attitude belies. Despite telling John never to show the Man what you really think, when Manners demands she re-sing a song with her real feelings, she sings the traditional song with its refrain “No confusion in that land where I'm bound” with such anger that it frightens both her and Manners. This is one of many powerful moments in the play.

In Act 2 Wiletta seems to have recovered from her anger but when Manners refuses to listen to the new insight she has had on the script, the anger returns even stronger than before and Monroe slowly becomes incandescent with rage as Wiletta tries to control her inner feelings only to encounter increasing provocation. The strength of her final confrontation with Manners along with its painful aftermath will not soon be forgotten.

As for Manners, Childress has conceived of him as a wolf in liberal’s clothing. The structure of the play is built on his gradual unmasking that parallels Wiletta’s coming see she has to live by her ideals. Graeme Somerville, so elegant and dashing in this year’s The Devil’s Disciple as the Reverend Anthony Anderson, plays the director Manners as intellectually and emotionally intense in ways that may once have been positive enough to bring him to his present fame, but have now decayed into a type casual sadism of which he is not fully aware. Childress gives Manners a dispute with his ex-wife as an excuse for why he has become more abusive and misogynistic than usual, but she does not give it as an excuse for his behaviour.

Much as Manners repeats that he wants the cast and crew to work as a team, it becomes increasingly obvious that Manners’s feeling of his innate superiority to those lower down on the ladder – whether they be Black, women or lesser White workers – will sabotage any of his efforts to create unity. What is especially brilliant about Somerville’s performance is how he shows that Manners is losing his grip, both on himself and over those around him, and how that perception only makes Manners more intractable.

David Alan Anderson’s Sheldon Forrester and Kiera Sangster’s Millie Davis are parallel characters to Monroe’s Wiletta. Sangster is very funny in her satire of the other actors and of the parts she has played, but she is careful only to make these remarks to other Black actors in private. Anderson plays Sheldon as an older actor whose forgetting lines is a sign that he is nearing the end of his career. He, too, makes negative remarks about the play and the situations Manners creates, but, like Millies, he makes these only in private. Unlike Wiletta, once they are in character they drop all their satire and play their parts no matter how ridiculously they are written. For both Sheldon and Millie being employed trumps any desire to upset the system, even they know the system is corrupt.

Also parallel to Wiletta are the two young actors, John Nevins and Judy Sears, one Black, one White, both with more formal education than the rest of the cast. Manners and the rest of the cast are dismissive of this education, Manners even calling Judy “Yale” instead of Judy. Yet, the two approach being in the play with enthusiasm only to see it crumble as Manners’ behaviour gets worse. Kaleb Alexander has John practically glowing with excitement at the beginning, a glow that nothing has dimmed even by Act 2. The dispute between Wiletta and Manners visibly changes his mind. Although he has no lines, Alexander’s looks say more than words as his face falls from dismay to shame to anger.

Judy’s enthusiasm meets a roadblock right near the start with Manner’s mocking her education and especially with his inappropriate touching in the guise of stage directing. Kristi Frank is expert at showing the battle in Judy’s mind between objecting and trying to look undistressed. As John seems to grow in strength, Judy seems to grow in fragility. She is a White girl unaware of her White privilege. When she fears losing this job she says she’ll have to return home to Bridgeport, CT, (one of the wealthiest cities in the US) as if this that were a tragedy. Millie can’t help telling her, “I ain’t got a Bridgeport”.

The three remaining White characters stand in contrast with Manners. Patrick Galligan’s Bill O’Wray is consciously segregationist and doesn’t like the attention it causes when he is seen with his Black cast mates. Galligan plays Bill as less troubled than Manners because he is less concerned about his prejudice, yet his behaviour when at work is more professional than Manners is. Neil Barclay makes the stage manager Eddie Fenton unusually sympathetic. He knows he is Manners’s punching bag. Barclay shows that some of Manners’s punches hurt more than others, yet Eddie puts doing his job before everything else.

Peter Millard’s Henry, electrician-turned-doorman, is also Manners’s punching bag and viewed as even lower on the scale of worthiness than the Black actors. After one of Manners’s insults Henry tells the others privately what he almost did in revenge, but he never actually does anything. From the start Childress places Henry in parallel with Wiletta. At the start Wiletta herself looks down on what she considers a man so pathetic that menial labour counts for him as “being in the theatre”. Yet, one point of the play is to chart her own discarding of her ideals and for Wiletta to see herself as not so different from Henry.

Trouble in Mind seems so modern because of its direct depictions of the stereotyping of Black actors and the frank discussion of the few options that are open to them. Yet it is not only about race. Childress deliberately makes Manners not only racist but misogynist and classist. White characters he feels are too educated or too uneducated feel his wrath as much as do the Black actors. The problem, Childress seems to suggest, is not racism alone but the belief in one’s superiority to other human beings. At the end both the White Henry and the Black Wiletta are shown as outcasts, excluded from the world they love by the close-mindedness of a man who feels innately superior to them.

Trouble in Mind is an extraordinarily powerful and complex play. Akin’s direction indicates further detailed links between the Childress’s actors and their characters beyond those I have mentioned. This is a major revival of a undeservedly forgotten masterpiece, one that should really be part of the curriculum of any study of American drama. The Shaw Festival has the honour of being the first major theatre in North America to revive the play in the 21st century, beating even the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival on Broadway scheduled for October this year. This kind of vital rediscovery of a past works that speak so strongly to the present is exactly what has made the Shaw Festival such an important institution not only in Canada but beyond its borders.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Nafeesa Monroe as Wiletta; Nafeesa Monroe as Wiletta, Neil Barclay as Eddie and Graeme Somerville as Manners; Patrick Galligan as Bill, Kiera Sangster as Millie, Nafeesa Monroe as Wiletta, Kaleb Alexander as John and David Alan Anderson as Sheldon; Nafeesa Monroe as Wiletta and Patrick Galligan as Bill; Kaleb Alexander as John, Kiera Sangster as Millie and David Alan Anderson as Sheldon. © 2021 Lauren Garbutt.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.