Trouble in Mind
Originally published on Exeunt Magazine on 17 December 2021
With Trouble in Mind, a biting satire about the rehearsal process for an off-Broadway play, Alice Childress was set to become the first Black female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. However, there was one caveat – the white producers wanted Childress to soften her tone so that the play would be palatable to white audiences.
With this stipulation, Trouble in Mind would have become as diluted as the play which the cast is rehearsing – Chaos in Belleville, a play about a lynching which is written, directed, and produced by white men. The most experienced and most vocal Black cast member, Willetta Mayer, fights for the characters to be rewritten, to be more authentic.
Just like Willetta, Childress refused to filter her voice, subsequently sacrificing the career mobility of being on Broadway. In fact, despite their overall submission to the infantilising white director Al Manners, many of the Black characters in Trouble speak out as surrogates for Childress’s lived experiences of racism as an African-American actress and playwright in an industry that claimed to be ‘race-conscious’ in the 1950s. Now, nearly seventy years later, at the National Theatre (following a recent Broadway revival), director Nancy Medina dares us to assess whether things have changed that much for Black artists in the theatre industry.
The production begins with the sound of a heavy stage door swinging open and Willetta (Tanya Moodie) stepping onto the Dorfman stage, which has been transformed by Rajha Sakiry into a warm and dusty rehearsal space. This rehearsal room is in the margins of Broadway and the actors that move around in it are in the margins of the industry. While the Black actors, John (Daniel Adeosun), Sheldon (Cyril Nri), Millie (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) and Willetta, have all had some success, they’re currently stuck off-Broadway, trying to make ends meet, playing harmful stereotypes and yes-men to Manners with varying amounts of enthusiasm.
Rory Keenan is particularly captivating as Manners. With grandiose gestures, he constantly competes with Moodie for dominance over the stage, infantilizes the other Black cast members, and insinuates more racist subtexts to his comedic words. In the second act, we get the privilege of watching his bizarre – and, at points, terrifying – direction. It’s just as fun watching Keenan indulgently watch the rehearsal run of Chaos as it is watching the chaotically staged play-within-a-play itself.
Luckily, Medina handles the large ensemble more deftly than Manners. While she doesn’t have her actors prancing and flailing around the stage, she works with the movement director Rachael Nanyonjo to maximise the use of every corner of the intimate stage, as the actors interact with each other and move around fluidly. The first act feels like a game of musical chairs – at one point, John and Judy flirt noiselessly by sitting next to each other on the corner of the stage block; at another, Willetta gets relegated by Manners to the corner chair. By the third act, Willetta fights against the pecking order of the seating. Moodie’s herculean repositioning of Shakiry’s set attests to her fight to keep her voice – it is such an awe-inspiring moment of defiance and individualism, she (and the audience) doesn’t stop to ask, ‘at what cost?’
From the direction to the acting, the National Theatre’s production makes Childress’s words feel timeless, as if Trouble could have been set anywhere, at any time. While this speaks to this production’s thoughtful and sharp revival, it’s unfortunate that the racism in this 1950s play set in America still resonates so keenly in the 21st century on a British stage.