A mere 66 years after it was first performed, it seems now is finally the right time for the return of the play Trouble in Mind.
The social satire, which uses a play-within-a-play structure to focus on the rehearsal hall as a microcosm of society, debuts at Shaw’s Studio Theatre this Saturday, Aug. 21. It also finally makes its long-awaited Broadway debut later this year.
The cast members play a group of Black and white actors rehearsing for an upcoming production of the fictional play Chaos in Belleville. Set in the Old South, the plot is about a young Black man who wants to vote in an election. A group of white people catch wind of his desire and form a lynch mob of sorts to come after him.
As the actors prepare for that play, tensions arise between them during rehearsals. The Black actors question the validity of their characters’ reaction to circumstances, and speak out to the production’s self-assured, white director.
Shaw veteran Kiera Sangster portrays Millie Davis. In her 15 years with the theatre company she tells The Local that Trouble in Mind has already nestled its way into her top five favourite productions, even before the curtain opens.
“It’s because of the director (Phillip Akin), the cast, the show, and everything that came to light this last year,” she says. “It is so relevant, and so poignant to my personal trajectory in life.”
Written by pioneering African-American playwright Alice Childress, Trouble in Mind was to have made its Broadway debut in 1955. But Childress, who was also an actor and novelist, refused to amend her work to appease Broadway producers.
Audiences were deemed at the time not ready to accept the anti-racism message of the play. As Sangster says, though things are much different now, the issues remain the same.
“We’re in a different headspace, I would say. Race relations are exactly the same. The issues that people of colour deal with to be heard in the theatre are exactly the same. The only difference is we have a better understanding of how to navigate through it all.”
As Sangster explains it, conversations about racism were taking place amongst the Black community in 1955, but outside of that, in the bigger world, the talk had yet to begin.
For that reason, and many others, Trouble in Mind takes on further relevance in 2021.
“There’s more people of colour in the media,” Sangster explains, “in positions where they can say ‘this story needs to be told’. I think that has helped. We have a platform now. In the 50s and the 60s the platforms were a handful. Now we have multiple platforms that we present our opinions and have conversations on.”
Sangster explains that the play-within-a-play structure sheds light on the code-switching that people of colour are forced into on a regular basis.
“When a Black person goes into a very prestigious event,” Sangster explains, “and we’re speaking to certain people, our code-switch, how we present ourselves, will be different from how we present ourselves, say, at a family barbecue. This play allows us to code-switch within the play, just like we have to in real life.”
Director Phillip Akin is the former artistic director of Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre Company. That organization’s mandate is to explore, develop and produce works that focus on the Black voice. Obsidian offers training opportunities through mentoring and apprenticeships for emerging Black artists.
“He’s a wonderful human being,” enthuses Sangster. “Just the way he allowed us to play, but he also asked us questions as to why we were making a particular choice. At one point there is a long diatribe about how a Black play can be produced the way Black people want it produced, versus how white people want it produced. We had a very lengthy conversation on how that affects us, because that is a truth that actors go through to this day.”
Discussions among the cast and the crew were important throughout the rehearsal process, especially when it came to the language used in Trouble in Mind.
“The conversations, we had them early, we had them frequently,” says Sangster. “There was always a check-in. I think when certain words are used in plays, you have to check in with the actors about the relevance of those words to the play itself. For us, the play needs these particular words.”
Sangster adds that the dynamic between male and female actors, as well as the range of the cast’s ages helped build the confidence of the ensemble to present the play.
American born actor Nafeesa Monroe stars as the outspoken, lead Black actress, Wiletta. Another Shaw veteran, Graeme Somerville, portrays the director, while Kaleb Alexander, new to Shaw this year, is also part of the ensemble.
“The cast is amazing,” Sangster raves. “We’re all seasoned actors and we have a level of respect for each other that is important in order to be able to do this play.”
She goes on to laud the work by Childress, who has been recognized as the only Black woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades.
“There’s laughter, there’s heartbreak, there’s racism, there’s sexism, but it’s all done in a way that is subtle, yet not, at the same time. ”
Reflecting on the almost seven decades that it has taken for Broadway audiences to be ready for this groundbreaking work, Sangster, who also choreographs and appears in this summer’s Gatsby’s Jazz, Sonny’s Blues, is triumphant.
“Look at us now!”, she exclaims. “It took some time, but we got there! This is the time to have the conversation with the masses. I can’t wait to see how audiences react to this play.”
Trouble in Mind opens Aug. 21 at the Studio Theatre, and is on until Oct. 9. Visit shawfest.com for information and tickets.