I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Alice Childress, even though she was included in Exeunt’s list of women playwrights. Picking up my programme and reading about her life was a revelation. Childress was a black American playwright of the 1940s through to the 70s, who wrote prolifically and sharply. She worked alongside Sidney Poitier, who dared her to write a producible play overnight – and she did. In 1955, Childress became the first black woman to win an OBIE award for her off-Broadway production of Trouble in Mind.
The revival, in its transfer to the Print Room, has the feeling of discovering an old, dusty book that had been too long forgotten on a high shelf and is now explored through fresh eyes. The wooden, creaky set design of a 1950s rehearsal room feels warm and familiar, but simultaneously old, with rickety, fragile stairs and bare yellow lights. The set’s closeness, using only the upstage portion of the stage, makes the whole theatre appear squeezed into this small rehearsal room.
The story follows Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie), an established, ‘naturally talented’ black actress who has been clawing and scratching her way to the top of 1950s Broadway. Her new gig, directed by her old white male colleague, Al Manners (Jonathan Slinger), is sure to bring her Broadway fame and recognition. But the politics of the rehearsal room and the play itself – of being black in 1950s America and acting out the white liberal fantasy of an antebellum anti-lynching tragedy – steer her towards giving Mr Manners the honest opinion he’s been demanding of her (but never actually wanted).
At it’s core, Childress’s play is a complex satire delving into the ironies and hypocrisies of racism, revealing the interactions between black and white actors, and their white director, as multi-layered power play. After years of navigating show business all on her own, Wiletta knows how to act towards white directors. She bounces across the room in her bright red lipstick, her flowery dress with its 50s silhouette, and winning smile, always anticipating the director’s needs. She knows that bright-eyed newcomer John (Ncuti Gatwa, who gives an earnest, heartfelt performance) must unlearn his Southern ways – his formalities, his integrity and his perfectly tailored grey suit – if he wants to make it big. Wiletta warns him: when the director makes a joke, ‘you’re supposed to laugh’, even if it’s not funny. It’s the performance formula that has worked for her for all these years.
Whiteness and gender are part of the power dynamics on display. Young Yale-graduate Judy (Daisy Boulton) thinks that all this ‘prejudice nonsense’ is a darn shame, and she’s ‘on the coloureds’ side!’ In her naivete, she clearly accepted her role in the play because she thought her character was sympathetic to her slaves and that excused her having them. Old Bill (Geoff Leesley), meanwhile, ‘has nothing against coloureds’, but likes to eat on his own during lunch, whilst director Al (Jonathan Slinger) dresses up his abuse, misdirected anger and prejudices as directorial exercises in method acting. In other words, Childress’s play shows how white people can (literally) play at working towards racial equality, all the while being complicit in its perpetuation.
Director Laurence Boswell’s clever navigation of the play-within-a-play structure brings out the tensions that emerge between the content of Al’s racist play Chaos in Belville, and the actors’ increasing doubt in the material. The actors jump in and out of character throughout the rehearsals, stepping off the wooden stage floor onto the Print Room floor, sometimes looking directly at the audience in moments of personal realisation.
Slinger’s Al is always circling, prowling with his hands in the pockets of his white suit, provoking his actors with offensive comments. Al’s acting exercises are meant to help everyone feel a connection with their characters, but instead they produce a painful dissonance between the characters in Chaos In Belville and the actors performing the roles. At first, these dissonances come up as amusing pauses, but by the third act climax, Wiletta is rehearsing her part as half herself and half the character. Moodie’s facial expressions as she switches between Wiletta and the mammy character she is playing, mock the absurdity of her character in Al’s production and show just how divided Wiletta is, to the point that the entire rehearsal breaks down.
Moodie absolutely shines throughout, but most particularly when Al forces Wiletta to sing. Moodie’s voice alone holds so much emotional power, and embodies the transformation that Wiletta experiences as her performance becomes a way for her to channel her pain, frustration, and determination. Her voice transforms from wavers and shakes into a raw, rich tone. She stands, trembling, hands flung out wide and tears appearing to form in her eyes. Al dismisses it, but it is clear from Wiletta’s body language and the fierceness in her eyes that a spark has been ignited.
Trouble In Mind is on at the Print Room until 14 October 2017. Click here for more details.