I was lucky enough to catch Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” last night at Hartford Stage and it stirred up a lot. The play was written in 1957 (the year of my birth) and the conversations in the play could have taken place today. That we are still having the same conversations about race and missing the point – even if we consider ourselves woke, is pretty frustrating. Big props for Hartford Stage for presenting this brilliant piece. The performances and the direction were top notch.
As it happened, I had, earlier in the day, been involved in a conversation about a woman of color’s child and how a white mom would have handled the situation differently. The conversation was amusing and mostly light-hearted, but admittedly as a white person, I found myself feeling like I was from another planet (was I uncomfortable?) – even though I understood the point of the theory: white moms do not have to worry about their children getting profiled and shot every time they go outside – so there is a different set of standards of maternal oversight of children. I get that. But it was very much a case of cultural eavesdropping with me clearly on the outside.
In the play, the leading actress (black) in a play directed by a white man, questions the writing of the play that would have her begging her son to turn himself in to the authorities because he is suspected by white people in town of having broken the law and they have threatened him with lynching. She insists to the director that this is completely unbelievable and would never happen. The other actors (black and white) in the play keep insisting that she play the script as written and not ask for changes but she digs in. She cannot play the truth of the scene if the words cannot be changed to something that is not a lie.
There were talk backs with the cast with many of the questions around the fact that the play had undergone a number of revisions only to end up nearly in its original 1957 form. The rewrites were done because white audiences would not feel ‘comfortable’ with the black actresses’ insistence on changes – they wanted a kumbaya moment so everyone could feel good about themselves…sound familiar?
This made me think about the poor misguided people of the Southern states who don’t want CRT taught to their children because it will make white people feel bad. I feel bad because it has to be utterly exhausting for people of color to have to keep softening their narrative to prevent people like me from feeling bad. I feel really bad – but I assure you that I do not intend to sit here and feel bad. I am a work in progress. I am even now, relentlessly asking myself tough questions – trying to stay awake and learn because that is the way forward for humans if we survive as a species.
It also made me think had the play been staged on Broadway when it was written, as I saw it this week, it may have initiated a deeper conversation in the predominantly white theater community 60 years ago but it is a sad but unalterable fact that Alice’s voice was suppressed. I thought about how “Raisin in the Sun” that did miraculously make it to a broadway stage a few years later (making Lorraine Hansberry the first woman of color to write a show presented on Broadway) and it’s powerful statement about red-lining and the disparity in what is meant by the pursuit of happiness in a way that woke white folks could mostly avoid taking responsibility. As long as they could feel sad and not bad because it was caused by some other white folks, they could allow it and enjoy it GUILT FREE!
I deeply appreciated the play and highly recommend it. As a director, I am actively focused on finding plays that help illuminate the problems that most of the white people I know, even the most woke, have around feeling uncomfortable in conversations like this. It is why I chose to direct Robert O’Hare’s “Barbecue” last summer. I feel that we ‘white’ people have to feel uncomfortable if we are ever going to get to a place of understanding. I feel that live theater, especially at the local level, can be a catalyst for finally breaking down the artificial barriers to understanding. But we, collectively, need to abandon the old, smug, comfy ways and confront our discomfort – and recognize that by doing so, the world shifts towards the light in a much more sustainable way.
I’m not saying that every theater maker needs to do plays that intentionally pull back the curtain on systemic racism – and of course there is room for all kinds of theater, but I am advocating for an acknowledgement from the theater community that we have lots of work to do in this space and that we are committed beyond checking off a DEI box on a grant application.
Theater Makers Lab is committed to advocating for community and regional theaters to embrace an ideal of intentional learning and to provide support to voices who have been marginalized.