Trouble in Mind review at the Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘Tanya Moodie shines in sharp satire’
Alice Childress was the first African-American woman to win an Obie Award. Trouble in Mind, for which she received the award, is about the rehearsals for an anti-lynching play scheduled to appear on Broadway. Laurence Boswell’s new production for the Ustinov Studio makes clear the brilliant wit, insight and enduring relevance of this remarkable piece of theatre.
Jonathan Cullen as Al Manners, the white director staging the show, flits from wisecracking affability to explosions of egotistic rage with such ease that each of his friendly moments feels laced with latent threat. Daniel Ezra, making his professional stage debut as John Nevins, is a calming, weighty presence amid the sound and the fury frequently happening around him.
The irrepressible star, though, is Tanya Moodie as Wiletta Mayer. Cocooned in stiff petticoats and deep coral silk, she starts out with a code of behaviour as carefully considered as her matching pink purse. Gradually, the forced laughter slides into shrieks and then solidifies into sorrow – big, angry, gulping tears.
Performing solo to no musical accompaniment, Moodie’s singing voice is bewitchingly beautiful, but the point here is not entertainment. Childress’ play is satire in the purest sense, using superbly perceptive comedy to reveal the hypocrisies and prejudices of staging a play about race during the 1950s.
More than that, it also provides an acute critique of many issues – including ill-judged attempts to address race and the scarcity of roles for black actors – that remain as pertinent to modern theatre as they were to Childress.