Friday, 22 September 2017

Review Trouble In Mind

Trouble In Mind
by Alice Childress

Black And Blue

Earlier this year, an entertaining and thought-provoking new play by a young American writer riffed from a modern perspective on racist stereotypes in a 19th century play, An Octoroon, considered controversial in its time.

The new play seemed original and striking but playwright Alice Childress's 1955 drama Trouble In Mind is in many ways a much braver piece, taking on contemporary theatre and movie stereotypes of the 1950s during the time of civil rights turmoil and the Hollywood blacklist [sic].

Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie) had and still has dreams of stardom on her own terms. She's a veteran of stage and screen dramas and musicals  - in minor roles defined by her colour and the perameters of roles allocated to black actors by even the most liberal part of the theatrical and film establishment.

But Wiletta turns from compliance to increasing anger during rehearsals for a misguided if well-intentioned anti-lynching play, focussing also on the right to vote.  Chaos in Belleville is directed by WASPish haughty Al Manners (Jonathan Slinger) who seems blind to the insulting portrayal of the play-within-a-play's black characters.

Childress's backstage comedy drama was a groundbreaking piece of its time, not only grappling with race but gender and the treatment of actors in a precarious profession dominated by money from several different directions.

It acutely observes the minutiae of reheasal room politics with the swallowed responses to slights and the power play. Indeed the exchanged glances and desperation endured in silence make it a very televisual play - something which seems to be acknowledged with recorded canned audience applause in a satirical side swipe in the latter half of Trouble In Mind.

Laurence Boswell's production is a transfer to London from Bath with several roles re-cast, athough Tanya Moodie reprises the part of  the actress with the Germanic sounding name, Wiletta Mayer, in a carefully calibrated central performance.

Seeing this in preview, there was a sense that perhaps the play and ensemble needed to bed in on the Print Room At The Coronet stage, although the individual performances pick out every nuance in a play that cleverly mixes broad brush and method acting styles.

After all, a new member of the Belleville cast, John Nevins (Ncuti Gatwa) has, he says, been going to acting classes.

He hardly heeds the warning of experienced Wiletta that the white directors prefer to think of black actors as "natural", and by implication uneducated, performers.

It's an ingenious dramatic debate about theatre types, in all senses of the word, with even the white-haired Irish doorman (Pip Donaghy) sliding into type but explaining another legacy inherited from colonialism.  

For the black performers the prospects are limited. The mutual humorous teasing between Wilmetta and Millie (Faith Alabi) about this has a bitter edge. Millie, says Wiletta, has played all the flowers in the garden, Petunia, Chrysanthemum, Gardenia, while Millie bats back with "And you've done the jewels ... Crystal, Pearl, Opal ..."

Meanwhile the fellow veteran of racist typecasting and manoeuvring, Sheldon, is also constantly wary. Both Wiletta and Sheldon, who are cast as a black mammy and her sharecropper husband,  try to warn actor John not to get too familiar with the director's choice of female lead, pretty privileged white acting ingénue Judy (Daisy Boulton), straight from Yale.

Geoff Leesley  gets under the skin of an old guard actor who teeters on the verge of racism, as much because his life revolves around words put into his mouth as a wish to blank out anything that may interfere with his career.

There's able support from the uncomprehending but ambitious stage manager (Andrew Alexander) and a deft set design from Polly Sullivan with  the director Manners disappearing into the upstairs office with actress Judy.

Trouble In Mind is a sophisticated, finely wrought and humane play about crude times and attitudes still recognizable, even if it feels like period piece. There are a few lags but the layers of artifice and the reality of the situation come through on many levels. For a play and production  absorbingly and fiercely twisting up racial and professional concerns, it's a /green light.

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