One of my great disappointments this summer was not being able to travel to Niagara-On-The-Lake to review Philip Akin‘s breakaway hit of the season, Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress (continuing at the Shaw Festival until October 9th in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre). As a cancer survivor (now over two decades cancer free) I have been careful over the past months not to place myself in situations that might be compromising to my immune system. As such, it will be a while yet before I feel comfortable to join even a smaller, socially distanced crowd in a theatre setting. Having said that, I was delighted to read that this production (featuring Nafessa Monroe, Peter Millard, Patrick Galligan, Kristi Frank, Neil Barclay, David Alan Anderson and Kaleb Alexander) has received such a positive reception both by way of the mainstream press and various social media outlets.
Appearing recently on a zoom panel discussion sponsored by Brock University’s Walker Cultural Leader Series entitled, “Black Canadian Theatre Leadership,” Akin noted the cruel irony of having a hit production of a play at a high profile venue like the Shaw Festival during a pandemic that prohibits large numbers of people from seeing it. “Thousands of people should be able to see this play,” said Akin. To add insult to injury, the Shaw Festival production marks the Canadian premiere of Trouble in Mind, sixty-six years years after its opening Off-Broadway. It certainly deserves a re-mount and, in my opinion, deserves to play on the main Festival Theatre stage. For too many years now Akin’s work has been relegated to the small, 200 seat Studio Theatre space.
The belated Canadian premiere of an important Black play or musical should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the growth and development of Black theatre in Canada. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New York in 1958 directed by Lloyd Richards. It soon entered the international repertory and was produced widely. But the play had not received a Canadian production until Vera Cudjoe, artistic director of Black Theatre Canada, produced it in 1978. The production featured two promising young actors named Jackie Richardson and Arlene Duncan and was directed by Jamaican actor/ television director, Bobby Ghisays.
My first opportunity to see Trouble in Mind on stage, was by way of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis with a powerful production in July, 2016. This was four years before the death of George Floyd in that same city. In retrospect, the central climax of the play, when Wiletta, who plays the mother in the fictitious play, “Chaos in Belleville”, confronts her white director and says there is no way that a mother would allow her son to leave home under threat of a lynching and that she will not say the lines in the play as they are written, juxtaposed with the reality of George Floyd’s final words calling out for his mother – is a chillingly prescient moment not lost on contemporary audiences.
The capsule review that appears below is excerpted from a longer article on Black theatre productions that I saw during this same period in Philadelphia and New York respectively, which included the Wilma Theatre’s production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 19th century melodrama, The Octoroon (or Life in Louisiana) and George C. Wolfe’s ill fated production of Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, that told the back story of the famous musical, Shuffle Along, which was the first major Black musical to appear on Broadway.
Critically Speaking, Fall 2016
Racialisms Old and New: Some Ring False and Some Ring True
by Robin Breon
Alice Childress’s 1955 play-within-a-play has finally come into its own, albeit over half a century after its first Off Broadway mounting in New York. This rumination on race relations and Black representation in the American theatre has seen several revivals in the regional circuit over the past few years (the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and the Intiman in Seattle, to name two) and it is easy to see why. The production of the play that I attended at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, featured Margo Moorer as Wiletta Mayer in a picture perfect, nuanced performance (directed by Valerie Curtis Newton) as the middle age actor who is getting her first shot on the Great White Way. She has high hopes that the fictitious play “Chaos in Belleville,” written by a white playwright and directed by a white director, will be a big success. In the play’s opening scene, which has the actors arriving for their first rehearsal, she advises her Black cast mates not to make waves “with management” even though some of the dialogue is forced and the plot line is – to say the least – overtly stereotypical and uninformed.
Alice Childress (1916-1994) wrote what she knew. She was a working actor before she began writing plays in the 1940s. Her work has a multilayered complexity that illuminates the gray zones of racialism as much as it does the stark contrasts between black and white. Of the 20 plays written by Childress, 11 were optioned for Broadway productions and not one was ever produced. The reason? The playwright refused to make the script changes imposed by white producers. Toward the end of her life she was quoted: “If a racist society cannot stand what the playwrights have to say, it will suffer for it.”
If there is an argument to be made for a major Broadway revival for a play that should have been given a chance over 50 years ago, Trouble in Mind would be the one I would bet on.