KILBURN’S Tricycle Theatre has a fine, honourable record of putting on plays about black experience and of using ethnically integrated casts. It’s a deserving venue, therefore, for the (inexplicably belated) English premiere of Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s play from the mid-Fifties which focuses on the problems facing black actors in the American theatre of that time.
A show-business setting has since become a traditional vantage point in plays for scrutinising racial prejudice and its effects. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), August Wilson homed in, for example, on the exploitation of coloured performers by the recording industry, the drama demonstrating how members of an oppressed minority tend to take their frustrations out on each other rather than mobilise against the oppressor. Dealing directly with its own period, Trouble in Mind takes a dry-eyed look at the demeaning stereotypes black actors were forced to impersonate in those days and at the patronising distortions of the truth that blemished even the most liberal and well-intentioned scripts, such as Chaos in Belleville, the anti- lynching drama we watch the cast rehearsing. The play proper centres on Wiletta Mayer (excellent Carmen Munroe), the leading black player in Chaos and one- time vaudeville star who has had just about enough of pretending to be less clever than she is and of laughing politely at directors’ dumb jokes. As rehearsals proceed, she rebels.
Inevitably, some aspects of the play show their age. The satire on the ‘method’ school of acting advocated by Maurice Roeves’s white director (his eyes screwed up in a parody of visionary ecstasy) looks a little mildewed now, though it does give rise to one neatly revealing gag. Officiously badgering Wiletta to feel her motivation more in one of the songs, the director makes her play a word-association game into which he drops such nudging nouns as ‘Montgomery’ and ‘lynching’. She then gives him more than he’d bargained for, a rendition so rousing and militant, he’s compelled to concede that the public would be happier watching the version without motivation.
Some of the satire levelled at the play-within-the-play feels a bit too broad, as well. This work contains, for example, a white demagogue whose call for moderation is a long, fatuous daisy-chain of quotations borrowed from practically everyone who has ever talked (Omar Khayyam to Hitler). But inset-dramas need to be theatrically plausible or they have a contaminating effect on the credibility of the main play. In most of the essential detail, though, Chaos in Belleville – with its stick-whittling Uncle Toms, subservient black mammies and coloured folk who can’t think without scratching their heads first – guys a genre sufficiently familiar to us from old movies. What Wiletta can’t take is the fact that her character is required to advise her son, caught up in the agitation for black rights, to surrender himself (pleading innocence) to the tender mercies of a lynch mob. This is a gross distortion of what a mother would do in the circumstances, Wiletta maintains, and designed to allow a white man to be the hero of the play.
Miss Childress is scrupulously fair to both sides. The white director, who has struggled to raise the money for the production, knows that if it told the whole truth, the play would never be staged. Wiletta, however, is prepared to forgo the privilege of arousing compassion in Broadway audiences, if it involves her playing an insulting travesty of black motherhood. Arguing that there is ‘more to life than truth’, some of her coloured colleagues are simply happy to have landed the jobs that are jeopardised now by her intransigence.
The British white director, Nicolas Kent, and his skilled and appealing actors succeed in projecting the humorous, tolerant spirit of the piece. The rehearsals at the Tricycle must have got a touch Pirandellian at times, with life mirroring art so closely here. In fact, to bring matters up to date on the position of blacks in show business, someone should write a play about a modern, mixed-race cast rehearsing Trouble in Mind.
Continues until 14 November (except 1-7 November) at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (box office: 071-328 1000).
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