Trouble in Mind
National Theatre, London, until January 29
Whenever anyone told the African-American playwright Alice Childress that she was ahead of her time, she’d retort that too many people allowed themselves to be choked during their time.
She knew exactly what she was doing with Trouble in Mind, but if she had been willing to tone down some of its sharp observations about the racism that was endemic in the theatre world in the Fifties, she could have been the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway.
She was happy to forego that distinction to maintain her play’s integrity, and that’s why, more than half a century on, it still packs an almighty punch.
The play tells the story of Al Manners, a dictatorial theatre director played by Rory Keenan, staging what was then a cutting-edge play examining the plight of Black people in the Deep South.
Manners is, however, willing to push it only so far and soon Wiletta Mayer (Tanya Moodie) is saying she’s sick of playing “mammy” parts – character, never star, roles that always involve her scratching her head every time she has to think – and suddenly the battle lines are drawn. It’s a backstage view of how a play is put together and is almost certainly inspired Michael Frayn’s Noises Off a quarter of a century on, but, while occasionally very funny, this is much more profound and important theatre.
There’s an extraordinarily powerful scene towards the end when Cyril Nri’s old stager Sheldon Forrester recounts how, as a boy of nine, he witnessed a lynching.
There are strong performances all round and an especially impressive professional stage debut from Daniel Adeosun as an idealistic young actor. Nancy Medina directs with great flair and Rajha Shakiry’s set is magnificent.
This is the National at its very best. What a lot of embarrassment it would have spared itself if it’d only given one of its main stages to this production and relegated the awful Manor to the Dorfman.
Or, better still, the bin.