The Theatreguide.London Review
Dorfman Theatre Winter 2021-2022
Alice Childress' 1955 play Trouble in Mind impressed theatre at the time enough for it to have almost been the first play on Broadway written by a black woman. However, the producers dropped the idea when she refused their demand that she change the ending. Although done Off-Broadway that year, its Broadway debut had to wait till 2021, the same year it is being performed at the National Theatre.
It takes us backstage to a theatre company of four black actors and two white actors preparing to perform the anti-lynching play Chaos in Belleville.
First to arrive on stage is the black actor Wiletta, given an impressive performance by Tanya Moodie. Wiletta is a seasoned veteran of the theatre who realises that the young black male actor John (Daniel Adeosun) due to play the role of her son in the play is actually the son of her friend and that she had last seen him as a baby.
Initially, the cast is content to go along with the white liberal director Al Manners (Rory Keenan) who seems content to run the cast through very melodramatic roles. However, the white female actor Judy (Emma Canning), a Yale graduate, says she would rather not use the word ‘darkie’. This prompts a discussion about whether such words should ever be used in a play even if the author is trying to promote sympathy for the black victims of oppression. Manners simply insists they must follow the text.
He has already abused his authority when he first met Judy by touching her without her consent in a way that leaves her looking stunned. It's one of those moments that make the play seem very contemporary.
Given the way Manners behaves, it is no surprise that Wiletta advises John not to contradict the director even if he asks for criticism. Yet as the rehearsals continue, she becomes increasingly irritated by the stereotyped characters and decides to take a stand on what she believes is the script’s unrealistic plot line that has the mother effectively handing over her innocent son to a lynch mob rather than telling him to go into hiding.
Their argument prompts the older black male actor Sheldon (Cyril Nri) who has for most of the time simply gone along with what is asked of him to suddenly and very movingly describe a childhood memory of a real lynching he had witnessed.
This fluent engaging performance directed by the black woman Nancy Medina is always engaging. It reminds us of those difficult struggles of black actors to win a more realistic representation on stage. Trouble in Mind can at times seem a slow burner, but its final section packs a powerful punch.
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