Monday, September 27, 2010
"Trouble in Mind": A '50s Satire That Still Troubles the Mind
For the second year in a row, Aurora Theatre, in Berkeley, is beginning its season with an excellent revival of a classic American play that deserves to be better known. But last year's play, Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets, is nowhere near as obscure as this year's offering, Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress. This play was produced off-Broadway in 1955, won an Obie and was optioned for Broadway, but the deal fell through when Childress refused to rewrite the ending to make it more upbeat. Had the play gone to Broadway, Childress would have been the first African-American woman to have a work produced on Broadway; instead, that honor fell to Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun, four years later.
Hansberry and Raisin deserve their ongoing fame, but I think that people ought to start ranking Childress and Trouble just as high. In some ways, Trouble in Mind is a more ambitious play than A Raisin in the Sun. It is a backstage drama about the 1950s Broadway production of Chaos in Belleville, a supposedly progressive, anti-lynching play. But the black characters in Chaos in Belleville behave stereotypically and unrealistically, the white characters are the heroes, and Al Manners, the director, is absolutely insufferable and patronizing (while convinced that he is a generous and liberal man). Trouble in Mind traces leading lady Wiletta Mayer's dawning conviction that she can't follow her usual policy of smiling and keeping quiet and being grateful to get a job. She has to protest against her role, the script, and the racist attitudes that surround her.
Trouble in Mind is sharply satirical, both funny and pissed-off, in the manner of the best satires. Childress skewers all kinds of things about race and theatre in the 1950s, from the small (Wiletta is sick of always playing women with "jewel" names--Ruby, Opal, Pearl) to the large (the prevailing attitude of white people is that blacks are ignorant and childlike). She even begins Act II with a wicked parody of an overwritten, "stagy" monologue. Because the play-within-the-play is so terrible, and yet Childress implies that it is typical of what gets produced on Broadway, it is as though she is saying, "I may be black and female, but I can write a better, more truthful play than you've ever seen before." Which is pretty gutsy for 1955.
I remember studying A Raisin in the Sun in 9th grade English, but I think Trouble in Mind would also be a great play for high school students to read. Not only would it lead to discussions about racism and prejudice, its play-within-the-play structure and theatrical satire would also introduce students to ideas about meta-theater, role-playing on and off stage, etc.
Trouble in Mind is not a perfect play. There are a few contrived moments, such as Wiletta and a younger black actor discovering that they both grew up in Newport News, Virginia; or the fact that the writer of Chaos in Belleville can't show up to the rehearsals. Still, it is a testament to the strength of Childress's writing and characterization that I really wanted to see what would have happened if the Chaos in Belleville playwright had been there. And, as a playwright myself, I reaffirm my pledge to heed my actors if they ever criticize me for writing a stereotypical or unbelievable role... especially when the character is of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation than myself.
Some things have improved for African-American actors in the 50+ years since Trouble in Mind was written, but often, they still play stereotyped roles--it's just that the nature of the stereotypes have changed. Wiletta and her fellow black actors, who in real life are smart and sharply dressed urbanites, are always cast as poor rural Southern blacks, mammies and sharecroppers and "shiftless" husbands, who sing spirituals at every opportunity. Nowadays, not many plays or movies feature this kind of rural Southern black life, so the stereotyped roles for black actors have shifted to things like urban pimps, thugs, and "sassy" sidekicks. I learned in this week's New Yorker that a 1925 Broadway stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby gave Daisy Buchanan a black maid who talked in dialect (presumably because the audience expected it). Is that much different than giving the white heroine of a contemporary romantic comedy a sassy black friend? Trouble in Mind raises such issues.
Bay Area theatergoers have one more week (until October 3) to see the production of Trouble in Mind at the Aurora Theater, featuring excellent performances from the 9-person ensemble cast, including Margo Hall and Tim Kniffin squaring off against each other as Wiletta and Al.