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Trouble in Mind

SEP 9 – OCT 23, 2011

Ham on Wry: The Serious Fun of the Rehearsal Comedy

By Catherine Sheehy

Trouble in MindWith the possible exception of hotdogs, people love to know how things are made. A quick glance at the offerings of basic cable from Food Network’s Unwrapped to The Operation on The Learning Channel confirms this. Among the oldest forms of such exposé is the rehearsal comedy. This is perhaps why the act of revealing the secrets of any profession is spoken of in theatrical terms: pulling back the curtain, a behind-the-scenes look, tearing off the mask. Alice Childress pointedly called Trouble in Mind a “comedy drama,” but, as we’ll see, almost all rehearsal comedies are up to something not only serious but also outright subversive.

The genre to which the backstage play belongs has long been known as “metatheater.” Recently, theorists have rechristened the form “theatricalism,” but a rose by any other name ... So what is the metatheatrical, or theatricalist, impulse? It is to call an audience’s attention to the theatrical event itself, to make them aware of the artists’ act of “authoring” the event and of themselves in the act of watching it. This keeps an audience from that dangerous state of credulity. Theatricalism is artful self-consciousness deployed to arouse the consciousness of the spectator. Plays that employ this strategy are most often comedies because, as an ironically self-critical act, theatricalism tends toward satire.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the heyday of the genre in English came during the Restoration and 18th century as Renaissance humanism was spinning into the Enlightenment and the drab Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell failed in favor of the far more theatrically interesting monarchy, which in turn would be curbed by the famously performative politics of British Parliament, first with overweening prime ministers from Walpole to Pitt then with flamboyant orators like Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who actually rose to prominence as a playwright. From the safe remove and plausible deniability of writing about the theater, authors gleefully threw stones at the government, until Henry Fielding awakened the giant with his irreverent missiles. Parliament passed the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which institutionalized censorship and put Fielding firmly on the path to novel writing.

Sometimes the genre is used to mingle the realms of our “real life” and fictional drama, thus calling into question the authority or the truth of both worlds. Spanish Golden Age dramatists in the long shadow of the Inquisition might in this way examine the validity and viability of the Catholic Church’s worldview or their country’s arcane code of honor. Calderon’s The Great Theater of the World is such a theatricalist foray.

Often dramatists will crank the device like a can opener to display the comic foibles of the human character. This use is, of course, causally related to the previous two, because human foibles are at the heart of political and doctrinaire failings. Here, Shakespeare’s midsummer mechanicals – Peter Quince, Snug the Joiner, and Bottom the Weaver with their theatrical aspirations – share the stage with the melancholy Danish prince-turned-playwright, who knows that “the play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king.”

Alice Childress uses the genre in Trouble in Mind in all three ways. Certainly — certainly she is making a political statement with her play. She sought to make political statements with all her work. From the relatively and deceptively comfortable (for her audience) remove of the play-within-the-play technique, Childress lays open the most self-satisfied layer of American society — the white liberal who believes himself free from prejudice and congratulates himself on the accomplishment continually. It is ironic that a play taking as its subject the tyrannous exclusion of unfiltered representation of black life should itself be kept from a promised (and announced in the New York Times) Broadway engagement because the producers demanded sunnier narrative outcomes than Childress could bring herself to write.

This brings us to the second method of metatheatrical technique, the confusion of realms, the destabilization of the real. It is Childress’ triumph in Trouble that she manages such a feat for both the play’s audience and for her main character onstage. After a very funny scene in which Millie and Wiletta bemoan the ridiculous dialogue they’ve been forced to spout from the white authors who write them nothing but stereotypical straightjackets, Wiletta is brought up short when she hears herself actually saying a line from Chaos in Belleville in her “real” life. She realizes she is always performing, even when not onstage, for a white audience. She comes to understand firsthand what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness” in his Souls of Black Folks.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

After Wiletta is awakened to her internal confinement, she spends the rest of the play opposing it. She dogs the director with a plea to allow her to be real onstage, a mother not a mammy. She even goads him into a confession that he knows the play they’re working on “is a lie.” Wiletta’s first moments with the naive John, a young actor who hasn’t experienced racial prejudice in the same way as the older company members, were spent giving him “acting” lessons for real life. She admits it’s “Tommish,” but pragmatism dictates that however the white man likes his black man must be the standard: bright but not too smart, congenial but not too familiar, complacent and a little bit grateful for the grudging and tenuous equality the white man has graciously granted him. This is a textbook lesson in the double consciousness. After her awakening though, Wiletta repudiates the lesson. “I told this boy to laugh and grin at everything you said, well ... I ain’t laughin’.”

As for having a laugh at human failings, Trouble in Mind makes full use of the metatheatrical situation to mine a rich vein – or perhaps vain? Of course the characters are types; they’re (almost) all actors! The successful character man is dyspeptic because he doesn’t like people looking at him off stage or screen. The too enthusiastic Ivy League student doesn’t understand why her cast mates think her parents in Connecticut might resent having to “guess who’s coming to barbeque.” The stage door man is a stage Irishman, hard of hearing and as angry as a leprechaun bereft of his gold. The tough-as-nails clotheshorse is prickly because life has stuck her too often. There’s poignancy and a little pain with each laugh.

When Alice Childress set her play in the rehearsal hall, she did it so we would never forget as we sat in the audience that we were an audience – don’t just sit there and soak, think and change, she implored. Childress sought to trouble our minds. When she created Wiletta and Manners and Millie and Sheldon and John and Judy and Eddie and Bill and even Henry the doorman, such vivid characters so lively and so lifelike, she ensured that we would remember Trouble in Mind long after we’d left the theater.

Catherine SheehyCatherine Sheehy was dramaturg for Irene Lewis’ productions of Trouble in Mind at Baltimore CenterStage and Yale Repertory Theater, where she is resident dramaturg.

Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.