Ncuti Gatwa and Tanya Moodie in Trouble in Mind at Print Room at the Coronet. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.
Deftly drawing parallels between art and reality, Alice Childress’ play is startlingly relevant, despite having been written in 1955
After 25 years in the business, African American actress, Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie – read interview) has finally reached Broadway. Not only is Chaos in Belleville Wiletta’s Manhattan debut, it is also a pioneering work about racial prejudice in America’s deep south. At least that’s what the white director, white playwright and white theatre company believe. After all, this is 1957 and Wiletta is performing in a ‘coloured play.’
Thus far Wiletta’s career has been one clichéd role after another, which she slips into as easily as she does the tattered apron and drawling vowels of the mammy figure. She even advises oh-so-earnest newbie, John (Ncuti Gatwa) to laugh at all the director’s jokes, never complain and just learn his lines. But this isn’t enough for avant-garde director, Al (Jonathan Slinger), who advocates method acting. Like any good Negro actor, Wiletta follows Al’s instruction and digs deep to find her character’s ‘true voice.’ But the voice that Wiletta finds turns out to be a little too truthful.
Tanya Moodie in Trouble in Mind at Print Room at the Coronet. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Swinging easily from drama, to social commentary then back to comedy, each cast member gives a fantastic performance.
Deftly drawing parallels between art and reality, Alice Childress’ play is startlingly relevant, despite having been written in 1955. Moodie is mesmerising as Southern girl done good, Wiletta. Still awed by the magic of theatre, she is both endearingly winsome and sagely matriarchal. She has a spontaneity and depth of emotion which makes her character so incredibly empathetic. The dynamic between herself and ageing Irish caretaker Henry (Pip Donaghy) is an especially shrewd nod to the various prejudices of the age. But even more telling is the relationship between Wiletta and John; our college grad who will only act in plays that he “believes in.” As Wiletta’s hunger for authenticity grows ever more vital, John’s principles become increasingly lacklustre as he takes on the insincere swagger of a luvvie.
Swinging easily from drama, to social commentary then back to comedy, each cast member gives a fantastic performance. Slinger is dis-likeably vainglorious as the director hiding his inherent prejudice behind a veil of rather condescending liberality. Each character reacts to this ignorant attempt at artistic integration in their own way. Millie (Faith Alabi) toes the line but cusses about it, whereas Sheldon (Ewart James Walters) wholly believes that the theatre company is doing the African American race a favour. Raised on a cotton plantation and living with learning difficulties, Sheldon is both subservient and overly grateful; perfectly in-keeping with the theatre company’s image of blackness.
Geoff Leesley, Joanthan Slinger and Daisy Boulton in Trouble in Mind. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
This is a truly remarkable piece of theatre which deserves to be a modern classic.
Although civil rights remains Trouble in Mind’s main theme, Childress’ expansive writing comments upon issues such as sexism, ageism and class. Such insights remain authentically subtle and Laurence Boswell’s intuitive direction creates a rippling undercurrent of tension. This is a truly remarkable piece of theatre which deserves to be a modern classic. With Kwame Kwei-Armah as the Young Vic’s new artistic director and Viola Davis taking home an Oscar, there have doubtless been some glass ceilings shattered in the 60 years since the play’s first staging. However, Trouble in Mind makes the audience question the roles we are assigned not just onstage, but in real life.
Full cast of Trouble in Mind at Print Room at the Coronet. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Info: Trouble in Mind is at the Print Room until 14 October 2017 / book tickets