Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (PAC) begins its season with a digital reading of Trouble in Mind, a much-revered but seldom-produced chronicle of race relations in the theater by Alice Childress. Ask a group of critics, academics, and aficionados to name an unjustly overlooked American play, and you’ll likely hear this one name-checked with some frequency.
Reason for hope
Childress (1916-1994) began her career as an actor in the 1940s but quickly soured on the roles available to Black performers of the era. Trouble in Mind, which premiered in 1955, skewers the stories that dominated Broadway in those days, often written and directed by white men, which portrayed Black characters in servile, stereotypical ways. Childress’s satire was perhaps too sharp for the time—originally aimed for Broadway itself, the play never made it, and for many years it languished in relative obscurity.
Its time may finally have come—which may be a blessing as well as a tough reminder. Several regional productions have cropped up in recent years, including a fine staging at Red Bank, New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2014. Earlier this year, the Roundabout Theatre Company announced it would give the play its long-awaited Broadway debut in 2021, once the theater can safely reopen. Broadway has never been an equitable system, but news like this—coupled with the recent record-breaking Tony nominations for Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play—give reason for hope.
The reason to lament the sudden prominence of Trouble in Mind is that, 65 years after it first appeared, Childress’s play remains painfully relevant. Racism is still an epidemic in American theater and American life, and for every boundary-breaking work produced by an artist of color, there are ever more attempts to portray Black and brown life through a white lens. Chaos in Belleville, the faux play being rehearsed at the center of Childress’s tale, is as recognizable as it is ridiculous.
Serving Childress well
The humor and tension embedded in that rehearsal process came across sharply in Amina Robinson’s production for PAC, which pushed beyond the typical constraints of a streamed reading. (The event, which was free, raised more than $1,000 in donations for Black Lives Matter Philly.) Tiffany Bacon supplied stylish costumes that ground the story in its period, and production design by Sara Outing approximated the moldy austerity of a Broadway backstage. Despite occasional sound issues and a touch of the expected tentativeness that comes with actors performing remotely, the design elements served Childress well.
The actors served her even better—none more so than Joilet Harris, commanding, gutsy, and sympathetic as Wiletta Mayer, a veteran of the stage who views Chaos in Belleville as a chance to legitimize her reputation as a serious actress. Wiletta evolves from going along to get along in the early scenes to fully challenging the play’s white director, Al Manners (PAC co-founder Dan Hodge, appropriately arrogant and imperious), on her character’s timeworn and inaccurate depiction. Harris charts Wiletta’s development with firm clarity.
A better theater
Characterful acting has always been a hallmark of PAC productions, and this reading was no different. Particularly piquant interpretations came from Michael Toner, providing levity as the elderly stage doorman; Trevor William Fayle as a nervous young stage manager; and especially Monroe Barrick, whose initial image as a bumbling old actor was shattered when he recalled a lynching he witnessed as a child. As in Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel, seen in a stunning production at Quintessence Theatre in February 2020, and which includes a similar depiction, Childress does not shy away from rendering the moment in graphic, arresting detail. Both women were writing for predominantly white audiences who, perhaps, were forced to fully confront such a horror for the first time within the walls of the theater.
In a statement read prior to the performance by assistant director Victoria Aaliyah Goins, Robinson remarked that “the more things change, the more they actually stay the same.” In this moment of reckoning, one can dream of a better theater and work to achieve it. One way, as PAC has done here, is to give a writer like Alice Childress her due.
Image description: A logo image for the PAC reading of Trouble in Mind. Black and white text above reads “The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective presents” and red and white text below says “Trouble in Mind.” In the middle is a black-and-white photo of Alice Childress, a Black woman. She is smiling slightly and leaning her chin on one hand.
What, When, Where
Trouble in Mind. By Alice Childress. Directed by Amina Robinson. Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. Performed as a streaming event on October 24, 2020. Philartistscollective.org.