I was first introduced to Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress in 2008 where I served as an understudy for the role of Wiletta Meyer. The production was my first black themed play. Needless to say, I was floored by the brilliance of the piece made even brighter when I realized how and when the play came into being. I then went on to direct and perform in two additional productions and the play continued to hold great power for me with its unvarnished truths and unflinching depictions of the social sensibilities of the day. As an African American woman, actor, and director I am able to track my internal growth and understanding of the large themes addressed within the play as I mature. Those themes include racism, sexism, classism, agism, generational divides within the African American and Caucasian communities and the very notion of self-identify. Oh, yes. This comedy, penned by Ms. Childress, manages to address all of that (and then some) in its 2-hour presentation. A stunning piece of work, the longevity of Trouble in Mind is a testament to its very value regarding the American theater canon.
For me, the greatest challenge in directing this play has been to guide my actors to unknow. That is, how do we as contemporary artists make real the uncharted, unrecognized, and unexplored realities of our very existence? Further, how do we as artists present the notion of unknowing in such a way that the move from said unknowing to knowledge rings with clarity and immediacy. In the theatre, we call this being “in the moment.” Being “in the moment” is an extremely hard thing to accomplish for a myriad of reasons. For example, I am keenly aware of my rights in the greater world and in the smaller world of the rehearsal room. I am aware of what I am willing to take, what is unacceptable for a director to ask of me or to do to me in the quest for a quality production, and I know when I can and must speak up concerning injustices that present themselves in the rehearsal hall. But what if these are truly unexplored territories? What if no one has yet to challenge the norms of the day because that speaking up is physically and emotionally dangerous? These are rich questions to ponder for any artist, to be sure.
I have watched my actors of color struggle with processing the micro-aggressions thrown at them in the play. I’ve watched them struggle to receive what they would never take in the present day all while pretending to unknow how history would eventually evolve into our current society.
The challenge for the Caucasian characters is equal for they are tasked with speaking and doing things within the context of the play that wrenches their contemporary selves with wrongness. They also have had to unknow what was previously and unabashedly afforded to them in the United States because of their skin color. I have watched them struggle to speak their characters’ words with a genuine flavor of entitlement.
As patrons, you are asked to take this ride with us and to process the contents of the play with an awareness of the time in history in which the story is set. Historically speaking, in 1955 the Civil Rights Movement as a campaign had just begun the year prior. Communism was still a perceived threat. Women had just gained momentum concerning their rights. The elderly and the poor were often dismissed. The ideals of the older generations were at odds with the youth. Further, all these conflicts were swirling around in a powder keg that was bound to explode. And, in the reality of the play, much like the reality of the world at the time, explode these conflicts do. I assert that the explosion is merely the aftershock of a series of happenings that join together in a shattering and palpable manner. It is grotesquely fascinating to watch…
The play begs the patron to consider a few things: First, Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress is a comedy. The play is funny until it isn’t. Second, as you witness our work, know that by presenting the wrongs of humanity through this very specific lens, we are also offering a means to highlight a path to universal rights. Lastly, as the character Wiletta Meyer so beautifully states, please remember, “We have to go further and do better.” Enjoy the show.