Although Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress debuted in 1955, its recent production at the McClintock Theatre felt poignant and utterly relevant. Under the direction of John De Mita, the cast brought empathy to Childress’ words and delivered a nuanced look at race, art and the responsibility to tell stories that matter.
“Trouble in Mind” took place during the first rehearsals of a fictional, anti-lynching play entitled, “Chaos in Belville.” The cast was thrilled to be working on a so-called social justice play on Broadway. On top of doing their jobs, the African-American cast members dealt with the prejudice of an industry and the eventual exposal of their director’s racism.
The play took place in 1957, just three years after the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the aftermath of which the characters referenced during the show. Scenic Artist Jessi Peeters shrunk a Broadway stage to fit within the McClintock Theatre and captured the era in her design. Before the show even began, the audience was given a Brechtian view of a Broadway playhouse; the actors entered from ‘outside,’ and costume racks, exposed utilities, along with the door to the dressing room were visible to the audience.
An inescapable component of stepping into the 1950s was entering a violently racist society with different expectations and standards than the present day. There was necessary discomfort in acknowledging America’s shameful history. Empathizing with the very people it affected most is essential to honoring those who had to live through it.
Director John DeMita’s naturalistic use of space facilitated the audience into Childress’ world. The cast included John Nevins (Jordan Jahmal Davis), a bright up-and-comer, Millie (Taylor McKenzie), a bold actress tired of playing the same roles stuck in cotton dresses and aprons, and Sheldon (Kameron J. Brown), an experienced actor anxious not to make waves. Wiletta Mayer (Mattie Harris Lowe) was their star and the production’s protagonist. Wiletta and Sheldon both had a reverence for the theatre when they entered, and believed in being the ‘yes-man’ to their white director. Childress immediately tested the convictions of her characters. The director, Al Manners (Cole Slater), demanded Wiletta throw away a piece of trash for him. While he later revealed it was a part of an acting exercise, the implications of that moment affected the rest of the play.
Childress captured the reality of each character’s unique perspective in their arguments and quips. The audience got to see Wiletta not only in rehearsal, but in her private moments as well, where she questioned a white author’s opinions on lynching. Lowe didn’t falter whether singing out or giving in to tears. Wiletta shifted from her modus operandi in the first scene, where she would smile and do her job, to someone who made waves and called out problems in the production. “Writer wants the damn white man to be the hero and me the villain,” Wiletta said during one scene.
One of the most powerful moments came after Manners argued the messaging of the play must stay the way it is for their audience that is likely unfamiliar with lynching. Sheldon confessed that had witnessed a lynching. He recounted the story, how he heard the white crowd laughing and how he saw the man they murdered. The rest of the ensemble was still. Slowly, Brown took center, looking at members of the audience in the eyes. Although the design elements didn’t shift, it felt as if the lights dimmed around him, as we listened to Brown breathe painful life into Childress’words.
At the start of the play, the white actress Judy (Grace Salee), wondered aloud if her character really needed to say racial slurs. The characters proceeded to discuss the cost of their use. The play both argued and exemplified this debate. The production contained two uses of the N-word. The first time was when stage manager Ed (Maxwell Woehrman), sped through it while reading for another actor. The impact of the word was immediately felt in the audience. In ripples, adjustments, and audible gasps, the audience listened as the actors debated the impact of such words. The second use of the N-word was just as disturbing, as it confirmed the slipping facade of allyship from their narcissistic director. Hearing it felt wrong, and it was impossible to ignore the stakes of using a word with such history. This history continues today, through the continued usage of the N-Word, microaggressions, and effects of systemic racism and oppression. This production proved just how relevant these discussions and issues still are today.
Childress’ play created scenes without white people in which the African American actors involved in the production could speak out against discrimination they faced in the theatre. Watching Wiletta push through the cost of doing what she felt was right throughout the production was an energising experience and a reminder to continually fight for change.
“Trouble in Mind” ran Oct. 31 through Nov. 3, 2019 at the McClintock Theater at USC. For more information about the School of Dramatic Arts, click here.