Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Nature of Art: "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress

On Sunday, I went to the play Trouble in Mind at the Arena Stage theatre in DC.  The play was originally written in 1955 by Alice Childress, an African-American playwright/actress (who later went on to write novels).  In 1955, the play was produced Off-Broadway and won an Obie Award for best Off-Broadway new play of the season.  Of course producers wanted to move the show to Broadway.

Tiny “problem”:  the play was about race relations, and the ending was seen as too bleak.  Childress struggled for two years to find a way to end the play that would satisfy the producers and still feel true to her experience.  She couldn’t do it, and the play never made it to Broadway, and in 1959, Lorraine Hansbury and A Raisin in the Sun became the first Broadway play written by a female African-American playwright.  (Trouble in Mind wasn’t even published until 1971.)

On Sunday, Trouble in Mind was produced in its original 1955 version, and it was fantastic.  The storyline revolves around a play within a play and, on the surface, explores the issue of the demeaning, stereotypical roles that black actors are forced to play if they wish to make a living in the theatre.  Of course, the deeper level plunges us right into race relations in American culture …both in 1955 and, still, today.

The play met my (very high) expectations of what good theatre should be:  sharp, smart, and uncomfortable.  I was laughing and squirming in my seat at the same time.  I was so mesmerized that I never once checked my watch.  I cried during one riveting monologue (and I wasn’t the only teary audience member).  The actors were perfectly cast, each of them—even the non-speaking stagehand was memorable.  Days later, I’m still thinking about the production.

And even with all of that, what really stood out to me was just how excellent the play was itself, the writing.  So many illusions delved into, ripped out and laid bare, in two hours.  Not one character gets off easy.  I would have believed this was a contemporary play, set in an earlier time period to make certain, hard truths more palatable for a modern audience.  (By the way, it’s impossible for me to imagine a better ending.)

You have to ask, why was this play virtually forgotten?

Or, you could say instead:  Art follows its own path and always prevails.

Here’s the review from today’s Washington Post:  It is, I think, one of the best plays about racism ever written.”

And here’s how to get tickets if you’re in the DC area.

And here’s more information about Alice Childress.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.