Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Theatre review: Trouble in Mind

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I seem to be having a run of shows I could only fit in before they officially open to the press; this was the penultimate preview.

A play that made me spend a lot of the evening wondering if I'd misread how old it was, Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind was first staged off-Broadway in 1955; which makes it ahead of its time, to say the very least. Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie) has made a successful career as an actress, admittedly mostly in all-black revues and a succession of bit-part "mammy" roles on screen. Now she's preparing to go back to Broadway for a ground-breaking new drama that will make a powerful statement about racism, and mobilise its comfortable white audience into empathy. It's just a shame that the play-within-a-play, written and directed by white men, is terrible, and full of as many offensive stereotypes as any number of overtly racist works. But as she tells newcomer John (Daniel Adeosun) when rehearsals begin, there's a certain repertoire of polite nods, smiles and giggles black actors have to offer up to white creatives if they're going to feel comfortable around them and continue giving them work.

But when director Al (Rory Keenan) arrives and begins to impose his vision on the play, Wiletta finds she can no longer follow her own advice, and she increasingly begins to rebel against a script that wants her to be a helpless idiot who needs a white saviour. The three acts cover three rehearsals fairly early in the process, and instead of a rehearsal room Rajha Shakiry's set locates them backstage in the theatre itself; its quite an epic design, although another one that doesn't quite bear in mind that two thirds of the Dorfman audience sit to the sides of the stage. Fortunately director Nancy Medina rarely has the cast wander too far into the blind spots.

Childress' approach to confronting and exposing racism behind the scenes is for the most part to follow a wryly comic line, as the black cast acknowledge between themselves the problems with the script, but in front of the director co-stars Millie (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) and Sheldon (Cyril Nri) fall automatically into grotesque minstrel performances they know everyone expects, and nobody questions. There's comedy both in everyone's reactions to the play-within-a-play and their interactions with the white cast members, like TV star Bill (John Hollingworth,) who doesn't like to be seen eating in public because of a health condition, but is worried the black cast will think he's snubbing them at lunch time. And Joe Bannister has some fun moments as timid stage manager Eddie has his own quiet rebellion against Al.

But all the time a more serious rebellion is brewing under the comedy, and it's interesting how the director trying to impose Method Acting on his cast is the catalyst: Wiletta can give the performance he wants in her sleep, but when he pushes her to find the truth in her role she does just that, and it's neither palatable to him and his audiences, nor something she can get out of her mind now she's accessed it. Trouble in Mind is powerful, and as well as many strong moments for Moodie, Nri's buffoonish character makes for a nice contrast when he has two more serious monologues.

But the overwhelming impression I came away with is of finding it hard to believe it wasn't a more recent play - at the interval I had to check Childress' Wikipedia page to see if the claim on the National's website that it was over 60 years old was a typo. Apart from anything else it's impressive that she managed to get a play staged in 1955 that was so unapologetic about both racism and theatre's ineffectual or hypocritical responses to it. (Never mind the politics, I'm surprised making fun of Method Acting in 1950s America didn't get the theatre picketed.)

It feels thematically up-to-date not only in its approach to race, but also in the way Al is strongly implied to be taking sexual advantage of ingenue Judy (Emma Canning.) But I was also struck by how it stylistically resembles modern American plays about race like An Octoroon, in the way it uses metatheatricality as one of its main tools; I imagine a lot of young black American playwrights must cite Childress as a major influence. It's a play whose continued topicality doesn't reflect too well on society but at least it's not entirely without hope, either about race or about theatre, as the only place Wiletta can find a moment's solace is with stage door keeper Henry (Gary Lilburn) - while the rest of the white characters spout the usual lines about seeing people not skin colour, the 78-year-old who's spent his whole life in the theatre loves it too much to see anything but a kindred spirit in the woman who just wants to get on with her job.

Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress is booking until the 29th of January at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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