I’ve been to a great many plays on race. Some, like August Wilson’s Jitney, manage to survive through the ages and provide a stunningly timeless view on the problems of the colorline.
Others, like David Mamet’s Race or Neil Labute’s This Is How It Goes, make me realize how much of an abstract concept racism’s pervasiveness can be for white people. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream art world is controlled by white people, and therefore what is considered worthy of production is shaped by white perceptions.
Trouble in Mind has been resurrected, but there are always complications. Over at the Arena Stage website, Irene Lewis speaks to the cause of the persistent racial gap in evaluation of material:
For years, the play Trouble in Mind, by African-American playwright Alice Childress, was recommended to me as a show that, as artistic director of CENTERSTAGE, I should produce. I had read the play several times over the years and found it to be “old-fashioned/old hat,” especially concerning the depiction of the character of the white director. Finally, I decided to ask the opinion of an African-American actress whose judgment I have always valued. She read the play and told me that she liked it. When I asked if she found the role of the white director dated and unbelievable, she said, “No.” So I came around to the opinion that this was another case of – what should I call it – whites (me) being “out of touch” with the experiences of African-Americans. I decided to produce and direct the play at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore. It subsequently transferred to Yale Repertory Theater. I am delighted that Molly is bringing this groundbreaking piece to Arena Stage.
“Out of touch” is the last term I would use to describe Childress’ noted work, considering it was originally performed in 1955. Considering the play was created more than five decades ago, it should not be so fresh and contemporary. And yet, we live in an era in which a white woman’s tale about a white woman and the black maids she liberated swept the bestseller’s list and the box office – clearly, things haven’t changed that much. So why the disconnect between black and white theater aficionados? As Childress herself has stated:
“There aren’t any black critics who can close a white play. But in black theater, black experience has been fought against by white critics. The white critic feels no obligation to prepare himself to judge a black play.”
And so, here we are.
Trouble in Mind is a play within a play, designed to explore racism in the theater industry by allowing the audience to peek at the inner workings of a troubled production. Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) is an aging starlet, who has spent her life toiling in mammy and sidekick roles, desperate for a big break. She is cast in Chaos in Belleville, along with five other actors – three black and two white. John (Brandon J. Dirden) is a young, black upstart, determined to make it in the business despite the cost. Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is an older black actor who refuses to rock the boat, for any reason. Mille Davis (Starla Benford) is a friendly rival who boasts about her husband’s desire that she give up acting in favor of homemaking. Of the white cast, young Judy (Gretchen Hall) is the classic ingenue type and Bill (Daren Kelly) is a set in his ways older white man. They are all drawn together by director Al Manners (Marty Lodge), who is mounting a large production against the odds and hopes to make a play “that says something.”
Unfortunately, the play was written for to appease white audiences, causing a key conundrum for the black actors in the performance. Wiletta struggles with the play most of all, coming to the conclusion throughout the play that there is something terribly amiss with the script – and having trouble finding an ear for her concerns.
Reviews of the play frustrated me, almost as if I was playing bingo. I heard about the “sassy” back and forth between Millie and Wiletta, and the “stirring gospel renditions,” which made me wonder if the reviewers had read Black Culture for Dummies before scribbling together their responses. These things are in the play, but they are also the examples that appear in review after review – ignored are the more subtle discussions of black cultural frameworks, or the broader idea of the ongoing plight of black actors choosing between regular work and acting on principles of racial justice. And there wasn’t a single reference to Robert Townsend’s “Black Acting School” sketch from Hollywood Shuffle, a more modern update to Childress’ core concepts.
There are other moments gone unnoticed by critics. Of particular interest to me was the relationship between Henry (played by Laurence O’Dwyer) and Wiletta. Initially, Wiletta is unable to voice her dissatisfaction with the director’s commands, and Henry attempts to provide some comfort and support. Henry, a former crew member turned doorman, speaks with a heavy Irish brogue. But Henry is also one of the only whites in the play that does not bother with pity, condescension, and naivety – he just commiserates, person to person. One would be tempted to think that this is a reference to the complicated history that Irish Americans have with whiteness – however, a major part of the acceptance of the Irish into the white majority was abuse and separation from black Americans. Unfortunately, answers are not forthcoming – I couldn’t find any critical analysis of Henry in this context. Taking the play at face value, though, Henry embodies human connection and friendship transcending traditional racial boundaries – even if the two leads had to wait until the stage was dark and their coworkers had gone before they could speak freely.
But the most electrifying part of the play comes from the exchanges between Wiletta and Al Manners, each pushing the other farther and farther outside of the bounds of polite racial conversation, where the ugly truth often lies buried under the veneer of polite society.
Most telling is this monologue, delivered from the beleaguered white director of the production after being accused of prejudice:
Get wise, there’s damned few of us interested in putting on a colored show at all, much less one that’s going to say anything. It’s rough out here, it’s a hard world! Do you think I can stick my neck out by telling the truth about you? ‘
There are billions of things that can’t be said… do you follow me, billions! Where the hell do you think I can raise a hundred thousand dollars to tell the unvarnished truth?
(Picks up the script and waves it) So, maybe it’s a lie…but it’s one of the finest lies you’ll come across for a damned long time! Here’s bitter news, since you’re livin’ off truth… The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one.. .they don’t believe it, two.. .they don’t want to believe it…and three… they’re convinced they’re superior.. .and that, my friend, is why Carrie and Renard have to carry the ball! Get it? Now you wise up and aim for the soft spot in that American heart, let ’em pity you, make ’em weep buckets, be helpless, make ’em feel so damned sorry for you that they’ll lend a hand in easing up the pressure.
In Plays by American Women, Judith E. Barlow notes:
Manners is surely right that few directors in the period would be willing to work on a show about racial themes with a predominantly Black cast, and that White audiences “don’t want to believe” or see people of color as they really are and “want to be seen.” (The failure of Broadway producers to risk showing Trouble in Mind is ironic proof of his claim.) Yet he cannot understand that a White liberal “version” of African American life is no substitute for Black people defining who they are and what they have experienced.
The fraudulence of “Chaos in Belleville” is most obvious when the elderly actor Sheldon offers a moving account of the lynching that he witnessed as a child, a description at sharp odds with the sanitized melodrama of “Belleville.” The ring of authenticity in Sheldon’s account points up the shabby cliches of the interior drama. “Chaos in Belleville” is not only a bad reflection of reality, it is an example of how drama by White authors differs from, and usurps the place of, drama by playwrights of color. “Chaos in Belleville” purports to contain “an anti-lynch theme,” yet it bears little resemblance to the anti-lynch dramas written by African Americans, particularly women. In Angelina Weld Grimke’s Rachel (1916), Rachel’s mother is helpless against the mob that brutally murders her husband and son. The mother in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Blue-Eyed Black Boy (ca. 1930) appeals to the governor of the state (who raped her long ago) to save their child, while the grandmother in Johnson’s A Sunday Morning in the South (ca. 1925) desperately tries to rescue her unjustly accused grandson. In none of these plays does a mother blame her son for White bigotry and turn him over to an angry mob, and none offers as hero a White man like Renard, who preaches tolerance and pity after Job has been killed. “Chaos in Belleville” is a distorted mirror not only of actual events but of the way those events have been interpreted for the stage by African Americans themselves.
The metatheatrical structure of Trouble thus allows Childress to write a critique of the history of the American stage, where plays by (usually male) White writers purporting to show the Black experience have been embraced while dramas by African American writers are ignored.
Trouble in Mind is currently playing at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC through October 23, 2011. Tickets are $70-85 per show; however, there are student and senior matinee priced tickets, as well as Pay Your Age tickets, military discounts, and Hottix, which are half-priced and first come, first serve thirty minutes before showtime.