Maverick Life

THEATRE

Trouble in Mind — smoke and mirrors, on stage and behind the scenes

Trouble in Mind — smoke and mirrors, on stage and behind the scenes
Thembi Mtshali Jones and Antony Coleman in Trouble in Mind at the Baxter. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Actors playing actors. And a theatre standing in for, well, a theatre. For those of us who get a kick out of the very idea of showbiz, there’s a lot to love about Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s 1955 play about a rehearsal for a new Broadway show.

The space itself gave this author chills, all the material substance and mystery of the backstage environment visible and real as you enter the Baxter Flipside theatre: pulleys, ropes, sandbag counterweights, props left lying about, old crates and pieces of equipment, all the stuff that’s usually hidden from view or tucked into the wings is instead clearly on display. Walking in, the audience is immediately transported to that behind-the-scenes world-within-a-world of a theatre rehearsal. 

And then, introduced almost one by one, a cast of characters who are either actors in the play being rehearsed, or the personnel who help make it all happen. First up, a half-doddering ancient (78 years old, as Nicky Rebelo’s Henry keeps reminding everyone) lighting technician who, despite half a century in the business, has been relegated to fetching coffee and taking food orders for the actors and their director. 

Then, in comes the star of the show, a woman whom we immediately suspect might be some sort of name-in-lights diva were it not for one significant detail: she is a black actress in the 1950s, a time in US history when folks like herself are somehow expected to bow and kow-tow and to give whiteys what they want to see and hear. 

For veteran actress Wiletta, played with a quietly furious intelligence by Thembi Mtshali-Jones, making her white colleagues happy is a kind of self-defence mechanism, a survival strategy that’s become instinctive because she’s performed the role for so long. She must act not only on stage, but also behind the scenes. Suck it up and tell them what they want to hear, make them feel good about themselves, even if that means keeping her honest feelings to herself, perhaps sharing them with us in whispered asides and subtle jibes. 

Alyssa van Reenen, Thembi Mtshali Jones and Antony Coleman in Trouble in Mind at the Baxter. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Trouble in Mind

Adrian Collins Antony Coleman and Thembi Mtshali Jones in Trouble in Mind at the Baxter. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Initially, there’s no overt racism. Everyone in this bubble of theatrical make-believe is polite and superficially friendly. They are co-stars, collaborators, colleagues, almost like a family. Even the jibes between Wiletta and a younger actress (played by Awethu Hleli) who makes a show of dressing like she just stepped out of a fashion catalogue, feel like the sort of innocent sparring you’d expect between frenemies.

There’s a kind of deference, professional respect between colleagues, at least until the wheels begin to come off and various layers are peeled away to reveal the hypocrisy and prejudice that lurk beneath the surface.

Most of the cast of the play-within-the-play are people of colour. Two actors, a smooth-talking veteran who has made a career for himself playing villains, and a young, pretty, fresh-faced unknown actress, are white. They are, it is suggested, part of the production in order to ensure that the show will in fact go on. Because, of course, that’s the way the show’s Broadway producers operate, in the interests of the box office, which means pandering to the tastes and sensibilities of presumably white audiences. 

The director, too, is white and fancies himself quite the operator, brimming with a sense of his own genius, evidence of his self-importance simply oozing out of Antony Coleman, the actor playing this egomaniac with such bracing energy. He is on fire when he’s funny and electric when he’s being a bastard. 

One assumes he’s simply so in love with himself that he’s incapable of recognising his own flaws. No sooner has he swished onto stage than his mask starts to slip – instead of the self-proclaimed humanitarian he pretends to be, what’s revealed is someone quite diabolical. He is mean to everyone: treats the 78-year-old veteran with disdain, speaks derisively to his assistant director, and ultimately, shows nothing but contempt for Wiletta, the actress and old friend he constantly pretends to fawn over. He lavishes her with sweet nicknames, calls her his darling, his sweetheart, but when it comes down to it, he’s not the least bit interested in hearing what she has to say. 

For all his humanity, he has no time for her truth. 

And truth, as every actor knows, is what theatre is all about.

Thembi Mtshali Jones in Trouble in Mind at the Baxter. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Nicky Rebelo and Thembi Mtshali Jones in Trouble in Mind at the Baxter. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Trouble in Mind

Lyle October, Antony Coleman and Thembi Mtshali Jones in Trouble in Mind. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Playing the glad-to-be-working actress is a charged, double-standard role that Wiletta initially goes along with, and that she has probably gone along with throughout her career. But as the underlying hypocrisy of the racially charged play they’re rehearsing becomes clear to her, she finds herself unable to bend to its untruths. 

It is, in a sense, a kind of coming out, a moment when this veteran actress can no longer play along with the role society expects her to play. It’s this rebellion against social injustice that builds to a kind of explosive catharsis. The drama that gets us to that point is tender, smart and persistently entertaining, too. It’s a captivating piece of writing, as touching and heartbreaking as it is funny.

Childress, who was something of a pioneering force in American theatre and who worked as a playwright for four decades, was with this play expressing her own reality, that of a black actress and writer in a world too terrified to face up to its own prejudices. 

It is a rather breathtaking irony that, after Trouble in Mind debuted and drew critical acclaim, producers who sought to take it to Broadway insisted that Childress first sanitise its ending, make it more palatable for white audiences. 

Thembi Mtshali Jones in Trouble in Mind. (Photo: Fiona MacPherson)

Initially, she tried to rewrite it, to give it a more “socially acceptable” resolution. But in the end, she couldn’t go through with it, and the play – in all its original, unabridged glory – did not transfer to Broadway and was in fact not performed there until November 2021, many years after the playwright’s death in 1994 at the age of 81.

It seems such a terrible oversight, such a blight in theatre’s history. And yet, as I watched Mtshali-Jones give voice to Wiletta’s fury and express Childress’s innermost truths, I could not help but feel that her words have lost none of their power and that this play’s message is as powerful today as it was in 1955.

Watching this in 2024 and witnessing this South African cast connecting with the issues from another troubled time in human history felt like a jolt of energy. You leave the theatre with a clear sense of the concerns that haunted Childress 70 years ago, having been reminded that those issues persist today. DM

Trouble in Mind is on at the Baxter Flipside until 1 June. Tickets are available from Webtickets.

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