Trouble in Mind

The Print Room at the Coronet, London (****)

© Hugo Glendinning, Ncuti Gatwa (budding young actor, John Nevins) with Tanya Moodie's Wiletta Mayer in the play-within-the-play...

© Hugo Glendinning, Ncuti Gatwa (budding young actor, John Nevins) with Tanya Moodie’s Wiletta Mayer in the play-within-the-play…

Like the Almeida, The Print Room at the Coronet has a very unique atmosphere that can – or cannot – lend itself to certain productions. This historic site, first a theatre (by the same architect, W G R Sprague, who designed London’s Aldwych and Wndhams theatres) then a cinema and now returned to a theatre, couldn’t be more perfect for Laurence Boswell’s Theatre Royal Bath, Ustinov Studio transfer.

With its peeling walls and echoes of proscenium grandeur, Alice Childress’s 1955 American classic in praise of theatre carries a wonderful sense of authenticity, even to some of its echoing acoustics.

When Tanya Moodie’s Wiletta Mayer, passionate about being an actor, stands downstage, her arms open wide, looking out into the small auditorium (formerly the upper circle), the glisten in her eyes, you fancy, isn’t just Wiletta Mayer’s but Tanya Moodie’s too. Character and theatre are in perfect harmony, perfect synch.

And incidentally, it was Moodie’s idea to revive Trouble in Mind, first staged in 1992 in this country at the Tricycle, home to so much British and African-American black writing at that time during Nick Kent’s stewardship.

Trouble in Mind earned Childress the first Obie to be awarded to an African-American woman. Four years later, Lorraine Hansberry, another African-American female playwright would win the New York Critics Circle award for Raisin’ in the Sun.

Trouble in Mind, however, takes risks by playing straight into the heartland of American entertainment by looking at the inherent tensions of a multi-racial cast.

© Hugo Glendinning, Faith Alabi (Millie Davis), succumbing to Jonathan Slinger's directorial charms as Al Manners.

© Hugo Glendinning, Faith Alabi (Millie Davis), succumbing to Jonathan Slinger’s directorial charms as Al Manners.

A play-within-a-play, it casts a dangerously satirical eye on stereotyping and the way black actors were then being presented in theatre and on film.

It’s an argument no less pertinent today if manifested in slightly different terms for British black actors constantly limited to being asked to represent gangsters, prostitutes or drug pushers!

But to begin with, Trouble in Mind comes over as a slightly cumbersome `period piece’, a slow burn of a play as Childress takes time setting up Mayer’s personality and that of the other black members of the cast – and one young, white novice. It is when Jonathan Slinger’s film director, Al Manners, making his Broadway `debut’ appears that suddenly the play bursts into life.

© Hugo Glendinning, Jonathan Slinger's director holding court with his cast...

© Hugo Glendinning, Jonathan Slinger’s director holding court with his cast…

From then on, Childress drives the tensions between him and the aspirations of his cast, particularly Mayer, into full throttle, arriving at a terrific climax in which although Mayer is about to lose out professionally, she has gained dignity and self-esteem. In short, Childress has taken her on a journey of consciousness-raising and she will never be the same again.

Slinger particularly brings all of his RSC experience brilliantly to bear in his venomous portrait of the director, a man whose modus operandi is to trick and manipulate his actors into humiliation to get them, he says, to find the proper `intention’ and true emotion – a fan perhaps of the Lee Strasberg `method’ which had just started up The Actors Studio in New York.

But most of all, directors aside – uncomfortable enough in itself to watch – is Childress’s sly way with pointing up to what extent black actors had to toe the white line, accommodate themselves constantly to what was required by white directors’ perception of their potential. And not make trouble.

There is a wonderful cumulative ambivalence in the way Childress endows Manners with certain `liberal’ views, seeing in the play they are putting on, a chance to challenge white audiences about their reaction to racism.

The turning point comes in the harrowing account told by the older black actor, Sheldon Forrester (Ewart James Walters) of witnessing an actual lynching – an incident referred to in the play-within-in-a-play – and Mayer’s gradual awakening, ironically stirred by Manners in getting her to think about the role she is playing as the mother of a boy in danger of being lynched by locals because he has decided to use his voting rights.

© Hugo Glendinning, Faith Alabi (Millie Davis), Ncuti Gatwa (John Nevins), budding actors toeing delicate lines...

© Hugo Glendinning, Faith Alabi (Millie Davis), Ncuti Gatwa (John Nevins), budding actors toeing delicate lines…

Amongst a fine cast, Ncuti Gatwa as up-and-coming young black actor, John Nevins, playing Mayer’s son, conveys a wonderful sense of wide-eyed freshness, while Faith Alabi provides crisp competition as younger black actress, Millie Davis.

Interestingly, Childress chooses, as a further counterpoint, to have an Irishman as the theatre caretaker (Pip Donaghy). His views about Irish Home Rule and oppression add cultural parallels and also perhaps feed Mayer’s growing sense of independent thinking.

An `old’ classic but one that carries terrific punch and no less relevance for today. A more than worthy revival. Do see.

Trouble in Mind
by Alice Childress 

Wiletta Mayer: Tanya Moodie
Henry: Pip Donaghy
John Nevins: Ncuti Gatwa
Millie Davis: Faith Alabi
Sheldon Forrester: Ewart James Walters
Judy Seats: Daisy Boulton
Al Manners: Jonathan Slinger
Eddie Fenton: Andrew Alexander
Bill O’Wray: Geoff Leesley

Director: Laurence Boswell
Designer: Polly Sullivan
Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell
Sound Designer: Jon Nicholls
Casting Director: Ginny Schiller
Costume Supervisor: Holly Henshaw
Dialect Coach: Elspeth Morrison
Assistant Director: Fay Lomas

Theatre Royal Bath, Ustinov Studio production presented by the Print Room at the Coronet.

First perf of this production of Trouble in Mind at The Print Room at the Coronet, London Sept 14, 2017 running to Oct 14, 2017

Review published on this site, Sept 24, 2017