FringeReview UK 2017
Alice Childress’ 1955 Trouble in Mind now at The Print Room’s Coronet Theatre transfers from Bath Theatre’s Ustinov Studio directed by Laurence Boswell. It’s adapted into the Coronet’s glorious shabbiness by designer Polly Sullivan. Sticks of furniture glimmer under Colin Grenfell’s accurate matching of the Coronet. Jon Nicholls manages music, canned applause and a wayward siren.
It’s still a shock to realize before Lorraine Hansberry there’s Alice Childress (1916-94). Her 1955 Trouble in Mind now at The Print Room’s Coronet Theatre transfers from Bath Theatre’s Ustinov Studio directed with great clarity by Laurence Boswell.
The Obie-winning plays is one of a series Childress wrote from 1949, when her first was penned as an overnight dare for Sidney Poitier. Famed as a novelist too, she died as late as 1994. Her refusal to alter Trouble in Mind – it troubled the minds of white theatre managers – meant it was Hansberry, not Childress, who held the perilous honour of first African-American woman playwright produced on Broadway. Piquantly, it’s just that pressure to compromise – and resistance – that’s at the heart of this play, embodied by Tanya Moodie’s Wiletta Mayer.
It’s effortlessly adapted into the Coronet’s glorious shabbiness by designer Polly Sullivan. Her hyper-naturalist cold-water backstage backdrops onto the Cornet’s circular stage as if it was always there. Sticks of furniture, tables and chairs glimmer under Colin Grenfell’s rather accurate matching of the Coronet when lit up, with more rehearsal-room glare later. Jon Nicholls manages music, canned applause – a new concept on brand-new Telefunken reel-to-reels – and a wayward siren.
A theatre cast arrive at rehearsals, both black and white players apparently on an equal footing. The experienced Mayer arrives enthused at finally grasping the chance to be more than a token film mammy; her deliverer Jonathan Singer’s Al Manners the director. As fellow-actor he’d helped flesh out her last film part, and he risks all mounting this production of Chaos in Belleville, an apparently well-intentioned drama against lynching. That apparent covers a hate-object ‘innocent’ of trying to vote in a southern state. It’s predictably just a bit above Pyramus and Thisbe in the cringe-within-a-cringe stakes: an appalling laugh-out-embarassed piece Childress skewers with deadlier accuracy than we now appreciate. It’s clear attitudes don’t stop with the play.
Manners’ blindness to this suggests more than a collision course. Flipping to a needling nastiness, Singer’s portrayal highlights the director’s latent psychopathy as Childress crashes his new method-directing, a superficial push for authenticity: taking characters apart, with a groaning set of stereotypes whose ‘truth’ is non-existent. In a way Mayer’s his most apt pupil. Her failure – if professionally that’s what it is – is to discover the stock character Manners wants. Mayer hits a nugget of her truth instead and sticks to it. It’s not that she naturally finds herself as an actor straight off – Moodie portrays this vulnerability superbly in registering surprise, pain, magnanimity and finally explosive resolve. Mayer’s slow to pitch her film persona as theatre actor, her overreaction though releasing something more natural. Chidlress’ writing is layered, so that whilst it’s possible to shudder at Mayer’s faux moments, you’d be wrong-footed to think it persists.
Mayer is both world-weary – as she explains to Irish backstage worker Henry (Pip Donaghy) – and wary. They’re both class victims and much of the play’s tenderness derives from their touching encounters, each bullied in turn, each biting lips to a degree, Donaghy making much of Henry’s forgetfulness every time Mayer launches a wise mnemonic saw.
Otherwise Mayer’s girlish excitement gives way to warning newcomer John Nevins (Ncuti Gatwa): laugh when white folk frown and visa versa. The dramatic irony is that Nevin’s wilier and more conformable, learning far quicker than Mayer – as she acknowledges – than she. The dangerous result is that in working through the execrable Chaos in Belleville Mayer discovers her voice, riposting to Manners’ ‘The story goes a certain way.’: ‘It ought to go another way.’
Childress aims for something more subtle than the fissured racism that’s part of Trouble in Mind. Older professionals like Henry and now Mayer can’t adapt. Gatwa’s alert comfortable Nevins shows he can; so can his fast friend Judy Sears (Daisy Boulton) straight out of Yale, initially Manners’ butt, who herself gets carried away in a singing routine; but like several of the cast she suddenly adopts luvvy-tones as we jump-cut into rehearsals.
It’s slightly different for Faith Alabi as sarky Millie Davis who looks out of Macey’s but is hardly luckier in her roles than Mayer. There’s no sense Davis seeks any solidarity but her survival skills and observations sharp as her dress jewellery, contrast with Ewart James Walters, the dignified Sheldon Forrester. Forrester will do anything for work, sees equality as a chimera but stuns everyone with his own witness of an event aged nine. It’s the stillest moment of the play, Walters investing his moment like a report from Greek tragedy.
Childress shows Manners attempting to cajole the veteran Bill O’Wray as judge to believe in the guff he has to spout, and by contrast O’Wray’s allowed to complain – it’s significant he’s as near equal terms with Manners as the other Irishman Henry is someone to be bullied even more than actors. Childress again shows a Liberal who’s not as Liberal as he thinks slowly thaw, Geoff Leesley’s avuncularity turning in the half-light of his own awakening. It’s a treasurable moment when he joins the cast for lunch. Stage manager Eddie Fenton Andrew Alexander’s allowed as comic foil, his servility part of an illuminating shaft of white male patronage. Manners too has his alimony problems. He has a moment to redeem himself too after Forrester’s witness, and Childress levels a later outburst like a forensic case before the company. Their reactions tell us something of their implied fate.
This is a thrillingly layered play with each character so well-caught that it beg questions and resolutions beyond its scope. Moodie is outstanding, allowed a run of vocal and expressive register that dominates each scene. All the cast however are uniformly superb. There’s a possibility midway that Chidlress’ obsession with process can make the work sag, but Trouble’s facets own a Chekhovian naturalism making it difficult to cut. In the best sense, the work’s almost too big for itself. May it remain so. We need it.