Writer: Alice Childress
Director: Nancy Medina
Any idea that Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s angry comedy from 1955, is outdated has been countered as recently as 2019 when the Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book, was criticised widely for representing a white person’s view of America’s racial divisions. Childress, an actor herself, lambasts the dramatic arts for misrepresenting her race and adhering to cosy conventions in an era when the Civil Rights movement was only in its infancy.
The writer voices her rage mainly through the character of Wiletta Mayer (a storming performance from Tanya Moodie), an experienced black actress who is fed up with playing maids. She is cast in a leading role in a new play to be directed for Broadway by eminent film director Al Manners, given tyrannical authority by Rory Keenan. Manners brandishes liberal credentials, but orders white cast and crew members that they should not eat with their black counterparts and refuses to listen to Wiletta’s pleas to make aspects of the play and her performance more true to life.
Childress presents her earnest arguments encased in a light comedy of backstage bitchery and theatrical in- jokes. Perhaps she needed to give a sugar coating to her bitter pill in order to get it to the Broadway stage in 1955. Director Nancy Medina’s production on the Dorfman Theatre’s thrust stage needs to negotiate some tricky changes of tone in getting the play to work. The awfulness of the drama being rehearsed is exaggerated to the point that we could be watching The Play That Goes Wrong and this may be followed swiftly by an impassioned speech about racial injustice; however, the transitions between broad comedy and high drama are always handled deftly.
The company in the rehearsal room includes three other black members. Cyril Nri’s Sheldon Forester is a hardened veteran, inclined to agree with Wiletta, but more inclined to make sure that he can pay his bills. Millie Davis (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) is a sassy younger actress always armed with a smart quip and the enthusiastic juvenile lead is John Nevins (Daniel Adeosun), whose most notable prior experience has been as one of the children in Porgy and Bess; nonetheless, Manners promises him Hollywood stardom and thereby secures compliance on his production.
Arguably, all Childress’s characters in this play are stereotypes, but that rather strengthens the points which she is making. Joe Bannister is the harassed assistant director wandering around with his clipboard, John Hollingworth has fun hamming it up as the company’s ham actor and Emma Canning is charming as the ingénue being touched inappropriately by her director and pursued ill-advisedly by her leading man. Rounding things off, Gary Lilburn contributes a delightful cameo as the septuagenarian theatre caretaker who has seen it all before.
In staging this highly accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable revival, the National is asking itself and the wider theatre world some intriguing questions. While laughing, audiences should be pondering over how much of 1950s Broadway lingers on this side of the Atlantic today.
Runs until 29 January 2022