“We’re making the greatest romantic African-American movie ever made. Directed by me, of course.”
– Quentin Tarantino (as written by Suzan-Lori Parks), Girl 6
Even I have to tilt my head a bit at my own use of the above Suzan-Lori Parks quote. I was an understudy for Berkeley Rep’s 2019 production of Parks’ White Noise, a script I despised with each passing day and rehearsal. My playwrighting credentials will likely never match those of Parks (whose work I’ll always admire), but that doesn’t excuse the fact that her long-winded script takes too much pleasure in devising methods of Black suffering, emasculates and de-identifies its Black male without any way for him to recover, and ends with him somehow happy that he can live with his suffering rather than holding the (literal and figurative) white man responsible accountable.
I hate that script as much as I love Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, a work that paved the way for Parks as its creator faded into near-obscurity. The reason for that was because Childress’ script didn’t compromise or cop out the way Parks’ did, particularly at its end.
It’s a bold choice for the ACT’s first 2021 “production” and the inaugural selection for their new staged reading series, Out Loud. As ACT Artistic Director Pam McKinnon recently told me, “These readings stand alone as a way we can explore great plays through the pandemic, and also offer us at A.C.T. a chance to ‘try them out’ for future production when we can return to making and sharing work in-person.”
Putting Childress’ play alongside those of Wilder and Shaw is an equally bold declaration, particularly for a company that – along with many others – was infamously named in last year’s “Living Document” in a less-than-favorable fashion.
Al Manners is a great director. If you don’t believe that, he’s happy to tell you himself. After many acclaimed films, he’s turned his attention to the stage. His first work will be to shepherd an anti-lynching play penned by two of his fellow white colleagues.
Naturally, the cast is filled with white and Black actors, several of the latter having worked in Manners’ films before. Their director is quick to lavish them with praise, up until the point when they begin to scrutinize the script. It raises the question as to whether he – or any white person – has ever seen them at all.
I can’t recall off-hand, but I remember when I was young and learned how difficult it was for silent film actors to transition to “talkies”. (I wouldn’t see the film Singin’ in the Rain until years later.) They’d spent so many years honing their craft for a particular medium that when the latest technological innovation required they learn a new skill, most of them couldn’t adapt. The same is happening for the digital era: even when the pandemic finally dies down, the streamed production will stick around – especially for readings and in-development shows like this one.
Although enough of Manners actor David Harbour’s work has been seen to know how good an actor he is, I don’t recall having seen anything by Patrice Chevannes, playing one of Manners’ frequent “negro” cast member Wiletta who’s never had a substantive role in his films. The characters are the two most important in the play, yet Harbour and Chevannes are clearly the actors struggling most with the new digital format. True, they aren’t helped by it being a reading, requiring them to have scripts on-hand at all times. Yet, they two are clearly the ones most uncomfortable with the new impersonal structure.
Fortunately, the rest of NY-based director Awoye Timpo’s ensemble integrate themselves (no pun intended) rather well. That includes always-reliable ACT regulars Steven Anthony Jones and Anthony Fusco as a pair of Manners veterans, Lauren Spencer as the experienced Millie, Kadeem Harris as wet-behind-the-ears Black actor John, and Eliza Kaye as white ingenue Judy. The latter bring a touching babe-in-the-woods naïveté to their roles that doesn’t slip into full-blown ignorance: Judy is well aware of the lecherous Manners undressing her with his eyes, and John’s opening conversation with the wizened Wiletta strikes just the right opening tone.
It’s that sort of insight into cultural racism and misogyny that makes Childress’s script so timeless. Manners’ self-congratulatory pretentiousness at his own perceived bravery for telling the story won’t allow him to even consider how little regard he has for Black people other than props in his productions. Similarly, when Millie observes the developing relationship between John and Judy, her discomfort is equally tinged with envy and worry – worry that John will, like his play-within-the-play character, wind up on the wrong end of a rope.
As a Black theatre artist of many years (I’ve worked with several members of this cast), I can say from my own first-hand experience that this sort of white director bullshit is just as true in the San Francisco of 2021 as it was in 1950s New York.
To the credit of ACT, they did try to add some visual flair to the now-standard Zoom meeting look to which we’ve all become accustomed. With the cast using what-I-assume-were their own webcams (from multiple angles, no less) and reading from music stands, editor Beryl Baker separates them all into frames that line from one end of the screen to the next, as they likely would have been seated in a live reading. Rather than have them stand, Baker moves the block of the speaker(s) forward, with the rest in a monochromatic distortion in the background. Blocks will grow, shrink, and move from one side of the screen to the other to indicate particular conversations.
Though not as elaborate or as flamboyant as the recent online version of their annual Christmas show, it shows that the ACT is indeed adapting to the changing face of the new theatre landscape.
Near the end of the play, Manners lashes out at Wiletta about how hard it is to be white, and how he’s “never been handed everything”. This, of course, is a typical white privilege smokescreen meant to dodge her question about a blatantly racist character development in the script. It’s the moment when Wiletta chooses to reclaim her personhood when Manners wouldn’t let her. It’s the sort of scene missing from White Noise, highlighting the sadism of that play in how it inflicts pain on the Black body.
Childress’ play is about the anger Black artists feel about white storytellers co-opting Black pain for their own entertainment. Sixty-plus years later and the lesson still needs to be taught. It may not stick this time, but it makes for a fine opener to ACT’s new series.
The ACT Out Loud reading for Trouble in Mind runs until the 4th of April on the ACT website.
The show runs 2 hours 11 minutes with a single intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.