Writer: Alice Childress
Director: Laurence Boswell
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Theatre is about unity; a group of performers and creatives coming together with an audience to tell stories. But this idea implies there is equality between these groups, which is still far from the case. Alice Childress’ 1955 play Trouble in Mind which transfers from the Theatre Royal in Bath to The Print Room at the Coronet shows that the gap between the “haves and have-nots” is as great as it’s ever been.
In 1950s New York, Wiletta Mayer, a well-known black starlet, arrives to rehearse a controversial new play with a mixed-raced cast and dictatorial director. As the play’s story about a lynching in the Deep South starts to affect the Company, old feuds and long-held grievances start to air. But for the amenable Wiletta times are changing, and she must face not only new expectations of performance but of race relations that force her to unleash her real persona.
Childress’ play has plenty of pertinent themes, and while it is primarily about the portrayal of black lives in the creative arts – all maids and mammies with feckless men at their sides – Laurence Boswell’s production also emphasises the clash of old and new attitudes, as well as a core moment of change in theatre as more realistic acting styles influenced by The Method began to replace the stagey approaches of the past.
The play focuses on these ideas of separation, not just based on race, but on age, as up-and-coming drama graduates John (Ncuti Gatwa) and Judy (Daisy Boulton) demonstrate in their more relaxed approach to inter-racial interaction, but also through hints at a class structure that shows Irish backstage worker Henry (Pip Donaghy) being treated as dismissively by the theatre’s middle-class managers as the black members of the cast.
Boswell’s interpretation of Trouble in Mind sees it as a form of powerplay, partly between actor, director and author wrangling over the motivation and meaning of their fictionalised characters, but also between these various subgroupings running-up against someone else’s idea of a future. Where this production is less successful is maintaining the balance between the story of the rehearsal room and the enacted scenes of the play, and although they have resonance in the actor’s lives, as well as much of the play’s humour, they are a prolonged distraction from the explosive final scene.
Tanya Moodie’s Wiletta is a complex mix of girlish enthusiasm and grateful subservience to her powerful Director, but early on the audience discovers this is what she thinks is an expected deference to white people, and we see that shift intriguingly during the course of the play. Moodie’s Wiletta hasn’t become the actress she wanted to be, and this adds layers of arrogance, doubt and fear of exposure to Moodie’s performance, that make her eventual outburst quite potent.
Jonathan Singer as Director Al Manners is a harassed authoritarian who publicly embarrasses various members of the Company for fun. For much of the show, Singer is the character the audience will love to hate but later is afforded the chance to show that his own lot is not quite so easy as the others imagine. And there’s excellent support from Faith Alabi as the sharp-tongued Millie, who dresses like a Park Avenue Princess, but like Wiletta, is reduced to playing maids on stage.
Given the New York setting and focuses on showbusiness, the tone of the production could do with a little more sparkle, especially as the theatre setting is pretty well-furrowed. Trouble in Mind is not a perfect play and its middle section, in particular, feels rather flabby, but for a play written over 60 years ago much of what it has to say about the stereotypical way in which we still see people remains relevant and proves we’re a long way from proper equality.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Hugo Glendinning