Trouble in Mind at the National Theatre is a searing portrait of racism
Racial tensions reach breaking-point in the National Theatre’s production of Trouble in Mind.
It’s the mid-1950s, and race is a hot-button issue in America. Al Manners (Rory Keenan) is a white Hollywood director, suspected of communist sympathies, who is compelled to take a job on Broadway. He intends to direct Chaos in Belleville, a broad Southern melodrama with a strong but simplistic purpose; to convey to a white, liberal audience the notion that lynching is wrong. Trouble in Mind takes the rehearsals for Chaos in Belleville as a prism through which to examine issues of race in a more nuanced and thoughtful manner.
Alice Childress’ play was written and first performed in the period in which it was set, but it is bursting with issues of immediate cultural and political relevance. The protagonist, Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie), is a black actress who has previously worked with Manners. She has been cast in Chaos in Belleville as the mother of the character whose lynching is contrived to provide the play within the play’s moral lesson. A key scene early in the play sees Wiletta arriving at the rehearsal stage and meeting the young actor who will be playing her son (Daniel Adeosun). Before the arrival of the rest of the cast, she explains how he should negotiate the difficulties of working with white theatre-makers. The process she describes is degrading, but she seems to regard it as an unavoidable consequence of a commercial theatre where white money funds plays for white audiences. Not for nothing, it seems, is Broadway known as “The Great White Way”.
There are two other black actors in the cast for Chaos in Belleville, one playing a maid (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), and the other – veteran actor Sheldon Forrester (Cyril Nri) – playing the lynching victim’s father. As they discuss their careers, further indignities are revealed about the ways in which they have accommodated the expectations of the white people who are, ostensibly, their colleagues in the creative arts.
Unfortunately, the play within a play is manifestly execrable, presenting black characters as gross caricatures, drawn straight from the tradition of minstrelsy, whose unreasonable actions are determined by the white authors plot concerns, rather than motives that would make sense to the characters. This grates on Wiletta, who longs for better roles than those to which a racist society restricts her. Her disillusionment eventually leads her to disregard her own advice about how to placate white colleagues, and confront Manners, whose own unacknowledged prejudices are explosively revealed.
This is a play that deals with contemporary concerns such as micro-aggressions, emotional labour, unconscious bias, institutional racism, and white fragility, but it was written a decade before any of those terms were coined.
Given these weighty issues, you might expect the play to be solemn, and self-important, but this is never the case. There are moments of great seriousness, such as when Sheldon relates to the rest of the cast and crew his childhood experience of witnessing a lynching, but these are balanced with humour, so that the play remains entertaining even when it is being didactic. Indeed, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, featuring verbal wit and a flare for slapstick. Sheldon also has one of the greatest displays of physical humour, with Nri seated in a rocking chair, milking a whittling scene for all that it’s worth.
The last half decade has seen a number of prominent works from black creators looking at the same issues that Childress addresses here, but through a more fantastical lens, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Misha Green’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country. The satire of Trouble in Mind is more biting for its banality. White liberal audience members won’t have attempted to body-snatch a black person or sacrifice a black distant relative to gain occult knowledge, but they may well have expected a display of gratitude for a minimal act of allyship.
Some may find it unsatisfying that the Trouble in Mind finishes with matters unresolved. Even Childress did at the time the play was written. But viewed from a distance of almost seven decades, the open-endedness seems dishearteningly prescient. The problems Childress identified remain intractable, and her non-ending can now be interpreted as a condemnation.