Monday, January 26, 2015

Kathy A. Perkins: Shining a Light on Trouble in Mind

Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Wiletta
Photo by Jon Gardiner

We've been very excited about our production of Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind, but perhaps none more so than company member Kathy A. Perkins. She is lighting designer for the show, but her connection is also personal. In 1984, she was asked to design for the premiere of Childress' Gullah at Third World Theater in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Kathy worked closely with Childress, and their collaboration grew into friendship. Kathy considers her a mentor, and you can still hear the admiration in her voice when she speaks of her. "I knew her the last ten years of her life. She was an amazing woman. Very passionate about what she did."

Alice Childress working on Gullah at Third World Theater in 1984. Photo courtesy of Kathy A. Perkins.

Childress' life was political, and it was reflected in her work. She wrote about strong women with integrity who were not afraid to speak up even when there was a cost. Kathy elaborates,
The women she wrote were so outspoken that they sacrificed financial gain or work, which was what Alice Childress was about. She suffered financially because she refused to compromise when it came to her work. She was a good person of incredible integrity and principles. She believed in what she wrote. She'd say, "This is the story I want to tell, if you're not interested in this story, then go somewhere else." 
We learned in our earlier posts by Mark Perry about how true this was, especially relating to Trouble in Mind. If you think that the political issues of the story are ones specific to the 1950s when the play was written, think again. "It is so timely," Kathy states. "Even though this play was written 60 years ago, everything she's talking about is still happening." She talks of her experience as an African-American woman in the theatre.
There are so few plays being produced by black women in the major theatres, and there are even fewer black women directing. The trend is usually a lot of black plays are being directed by white directors. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but I'm saying where do black women go to direct? Are they being allowed to direct a white play? I have to remind theatre companies that I have the same MFA in lighting that my white collegues have. I can do Shakespeare. You don't have to call me just for "the black show." So, in a sense, things haven't really changed.
Alice Childress working on Gullah at Third World Theater in 1984. Photo courtesy of Kathy A. Perkins.
Kathy's approach to each project varies from show to show, but the work that Kathy has created on our stage for this production is particularly inspired. She says she drew from "the spirit of Alice Childress" and designed how she expects she would have wanted the stage to look. Childress was into realism with as little distraction as possible. Kathy captures the dinginess of backstage work lights, finding sepia colors to add a vintage quality of the era. The lights get brighter as the show builds, going from warm to cool hues, paralleling the tension of the play.

One of the most poignant moments of the play is delivered by Roger Robinson as Sheldon describing a disturbing event from his past. You will see for yourself Kathy's hand in the scene and just how integral her design work is to this piece.
Jorge Donoso, Carey Cox, Roger Robinson, Suzette Azariah Gunn and Schuyler Scott Mastain. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Trouble in Mind is onstage through February 8. Click here and buy your tickets now.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Trouble in Mind: Dress Rehearsal

The cast of Trouble in Mind performed their final dress rehearsal last night! Here's a peek below. The show is in previews now and will be running at PlayMakers through Feb 8.

Also, listen to the premiere episode of Thank You 10, a UNC Department of Dramatic Art Podcast created by PlayMakers company member, Gregory DeCandia. Episode 1 spotlights Trouble in Mind and features conversations with Director Jade King Carroll, Lighting Designer Kathy A. Perkins, and Actors Myles Bullock and Suzette Azariah Gunn.


KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Wiletta Mayer (Photo by Jon Gardiner)
(Photo by Jon Gardiner)
L to R: MYLES BULLOCK as John Nevins, SUZETTE AZARIAH GUNN as Millie Davis and CAREY COX as Judy Sears (Photo by Jon Gardiner) 

L to R: KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Wiletta Mayer, ROGER ROBINSON as Sheldon Forrester, MYLES BULLOCK as John Nevins, CAREY COX as Judy Sears and SUZETTE AZARIAH GUNN as Millie Davis (Photo by Jon Gardiner)
L to R: MYLES BULLOCK as John Nevins and CAREY COX as Judy Sears (Photo by Jon Gardiner)
L to R: SUZETTE AZARIAH GUNN as Millie Davis, JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Bill O’Wray and SCHUYLER SCOTT MASTAIN as Al Manners (Photo by Jon Gardiner)

ROGER ROBINSON as Sheldon Forrester (Photo by Jon Gardiner)

(Photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress.
January 21 – February 8, 2015. Directed by Jade King Carroll.

Call 919-962-PLAY (7529) or visit

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Who's Afraid of Alice Childress?, Part 2

By Mark Perry

(Continued from Part 1)

Wiletta does not come to the Belleville script with any finessed dramaturgical considerations. Her words are more to the point: “It stinks.” That said, her finesse is found in the shield she carries to guard herself from any such psychological and emotional impact. Upon meeting the neophyte John, Wiletta shares the wisdom of her trade, introducing point-by-point a system of working in the white-dominated world of the professional theatre, what we might call code switching and what John dares to call “Tomming.” There is a face and attitude and speech one has towards whites and the white establishment, and there is a face and attitude and speech one has with the black community. There is the Mask, the Front, the Show put on for the Other, and then there is the natural feeling of being with one’s own. In virtually all plays, we gain dramatic irony by seeing more than some of the characters see. Here, Childress provides early-on a concise glossary of African-American code-switching—a code we still recognize, and therefore allows audience members of all colors to participate in the play’s dramatic irony for purposes both comic and serious.

1901 sheet music showing both
performer dignity and stereotyped roles.

If we look more deeply, we see this Masking, this hypokrisis or putting on of a show, has its origins in the painful crises of history. From the word GO, slavery and performance were linked. African slaves were forced to dance and sing aboard the ships in the Middle Passage, and again at auction, and then perpetually for the owners’ entertainment. Perhaps more insidiously, slave masters would force slaves to pretend to be happy and content with their lot when in public or otherwise in the presence of whites. So this Masking, this pretense to pleasantry, comes from a deep and dark place. And yet performance—singing, dancing, enactment—was also a source of life and light in lives otherwise hauntingly bleak. The songs of slaves, rooted in African melody, expressed both sorrow and objection—such “wild songs” abolitionist Frederick Douglass said animated his desire for freedom. We hear their echoes down into the songs in Chaos in Belleville even. What a complicated picture the double consciousness of performance! As Douglas Jones of Rutgers says, “Since performance sustained slavery and freedom, it could not be trusted nor neglected.”

Also originating in the painful crucible of enslavement is another prominent feature of Childress’ world here, and the other side of the Masking described above: the collectivism and group identity of the African-American community. Once in captivity, differing African nationalities quickly merged together into an identity defined by “blackness.” Even in Chaos in Belleville’s newly-formed interracial theatre cast, a black collective is immediately assumed, and no sooner assembled than it is challenged. Jealousy, ambition, narcissism—behaviors frequently reflected in the mainstream American theatre community—do their damage, but the appeal of interracial mingling is also a test. Finally, what happens to a collective when the individual is impelled to arise in an act of conscience that the group would otherwise stifle?

This will be Wiletta’s trial. While she begins the play with no qualms of conscience and no intention of letting down the Mask, her inherent dignity gets the better of her. Her awareness piqued by an acting exercise, she has trouble in mind over a plot that makes no sense and characters whose motivations are irrational. The truth is the writer is unwilling to attribute any agency or any heroic virtue beyond victimhood to African-American characters. She brings this up with Al Manners, the mercurial director who presses the behavioral code of the theatre: Actors do not change the script; they need not worry about the narrative, just to learn it word-perfect and perform it.

To be plain, the subtext not only of Chaos in Belleville but of the rehearsal room is the same exploitative, dehumanizing narrative that serviced the enslavement of the African people in America by the whites: “You don’t have any power. We have the power. Give up, don’t think, don’t question. Or else…” Watching the play from this perspective, one begins to experience synaptic fireworks, marvelous connections this underappreciated playwright made as she realized the dream voiced by Wiletta: “I’ve always wanted to do somethin’ real grand… in the theater.”

The playwright, herself light-skinned and somewhat uneasy about it, stood at an intriguing threshold—one that may have proved too challenging for audiences of its time. This was not a theatre that compromised and showed white projections of blackness, nor was this a theatre “about us, by us, for us…" This was a theatre about encountering “them,” and in several of her most well-known plays, she is relentless about this. These encounters are explosive, and they signal, at best, mindlessness and, at worst, malicious bigotry on the part of the white characters, who stand in positions of relative authority, towards the black female characters, who are distinguished in each case by a deteriorating capacity to hush up, nod and play along. The dynamic of racial interaction she shows is scary and uncertain as to outcome, but the necessity is unrelenting. Pressure is building. What happens to a dialogue deferred?

So who is afraid of Alice Childress, our Leftist, Feminist, Black Nationalist and Liberationist playwright? Only those whose privilege blinds them to the radical truth spoken of by the Psalmist and recited by Wiletta at the play’s end: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

For an excellent resource, see Selected Plays by Alice Childress. (Kathy A. Perkins, editor. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011.) 

Trouble in Mind is onstage January 21 through February 8. Click here to get your tickets now!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Who's Afraid of Alice Childress?, Part 1

Pictured: Kathryn Hunter-Williams. Photo by: Andrea Akin
Trouble in Mind… now what's that about?”

Some of our patrons may have wondered this when first hearing the title in PlayMakers' current season. It is a lesser-known masterwork of a slightly better-known author, Alice Childress (1916-1994).

Childress probably reached her widest audience with the 1973 novel and 1978 film of A Hero Ain't Nothin but a Sandwich. This play though seems to be enjoying a revival in the 21st century. It's funny, fresh, profound, and surprisingly timely for a play written two years before the first Edsel rolled off the showroom floor and into comic history. Assuming there isn’t just one spot in our dramatic canon for an African-American female writer before 1975, why isn't this play included in our drama anthologies, say, between Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and J.B.? Part of the answer may be found in the play’s production history.

Given the cultural environment of the 1950s, the play was a breakthrough for its time. It opened on November 3, 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, a 200-seat Off-Broadway house and played for 91 shows. This was a first for the race, so to speak—the first mainstream, professionally produced play (that is, with unionized actors) by an African-American female playwright. Other firsts had preceded this one and still others would succeed it, but this was a big deal. Not so interested in such designations, Alice Childress just wanted her plays to be done and done truthfully. Concerned about deep-seated stereotyping, she directed this production herself. Ah, but there was a problem, said the producers: the ending. Audiences—white audiences, that was—weren't going to like this unsettling ending. In a bewildering case, as Childress anthologist and PlayMakers company member Kathy Perkins notes, of life imitating art that one can only appreciate after seeing the play, here was this dispute between the cautious white producers and the righteous black female asserting the need for a truthful ending. She compromised and wrote a happier ending for the production. As was bound to happen, The New York Times review came out with strong praise for the play, all except for the ending. The play had been optioned for Broadway, and Childress struggled to revise, but ultimately negotiations broke down. Burned by the experience, she vowed never again to cave artistically to producer pressure. She went back to her original ending, but had lost some steam in promoting the play in the process. As a result, the first Broadway play by an African-American female would be 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.
Photo from 1955 New York Times review

Mind you, African-Americans had long performed on Broadway—acting, dancing and singing. Trouble in Mind takes us into the first week of rehearsal of just such a Broadway play called Chaos in Belleville, a melodrama about a Southern lynching. We meet Wiletta, the lead actress in the play, middle-aged and still enamored of stage life. The company is interracial, and they generally consider themselves more sophisticated than the Southerners they are portraying. And they are certainly more sophisticated than the painfully-stereotyped caricatures provided them by the absent white author. While Chaos in Belleville is a satirical creation of Childress, it is close to the mark for what constituted mainstream entertainment in the first half of the 20th Century. The African-American actors here are quite accustomed to playing such derogated projections of their kind. They accept it, though, for need of work and for love of performing. Even today this predicament persists, as Kathy Perkins notes, with people of color "still being portrayed stereotypically on both stage and film or just being erased out of history as in the current film Exodus." As Wiletta says, “it’s the man’s play, the man’s money and the man’s theater, so what you gonna do?”
The Group Theatre's 1931 production of Paul Green's House of Connelly (Paul Green Foundation)
Now our play-within-a-play is not without its virtues. It is well-intended with an anti-lynching theme, a genre that both white and black playwrights had actively embraced since the first part of the 20th Century. All people of goodwill could rally against such domestic terrorism. Our very own progressive-minded Paul Green wrote many such “Negro dramas” with sympathetic portrayals of African-American characters, most famously his Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom (1927). More importantly though, in our consideration of Alice Childress’ development, is the history of African-American playwrights emerging in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, especially in Harlem and Washington DC. These women and men, such as Angelina Grimke, Willis Richardson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes and Eulalie Spence, contributed to a growing stream of noteworthy dramatic writing, responding to such calls as W.E.B. DuBois’ famous manifesto seeking plays “about us, by us, for us, near us” and Alain Locke’s cultivation of Negro folk drama at Howard University. Works by these playwrights, as well as by Green and others, would be performed by thousands of amateur Negro theatre groups founded in schools, clubs and communities around the country in the times before the Great Depression dried up much of that stream.

Click here for Part 2 of Mark's in-depth look at Trouble in Mind, onstage January 21 to February 8. Click here to get your tickets!