'Trouble in Mind' review or 'Whose truth shall we play?'

Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress
Print Room Theatre, 21st September 2017
Written for Time Out

Not everyone reading this review will have heard of the knockout star of this show, the black British actress Tanya Moodie. That fact alone suggests that the racial prejudices explored in Alice Childress’s ground-breaking satire ‘Trouble in Mind’ are still in play, no matter how much we like to think they’re not. Moodie turns in a soul-scorching performance: it boggles the mind that she isn’t yet a household name.
The play is set in New York in the ’50s and was the first show written by a black woman to be professionally produced. Moodie plays Wiletta Mayer, a relatively successful actress who has learned to question rarely and laugh regularly. Rehearsals are underway for an anti-lynching play, supposedly progressive but actually steeped in prejudice. As rehearsals rumble on, Wiletta stops laughing and starts to question everything.
Moodie is mesmerising. It’s a huge performance, yet never overblown. Her Wiletta is initially rather childlike: she coos at the directors, twirls about the stage and plays up to the gallery. But her performance begins to slip – with a sly smile here or a burst of rage there. Gradually, Wiletta’s real self rises to the surface, no more so than when Moodie sings straight from the soul.
Laurence Boswell’s sensitive production plays out on designer Polly Sullivan’s half-dressed stage – a reality still under construction. The ensemble cast is phenomenal, particularly Faith Alabi as the younger black actress Millie, who sees herself in Wiletta but sometimes longs for a different reflection. Jonathan Slinger is horribly impressive as the power-hungry director, although he’s sometimes so horrific he loses the audience. When he coaxes a sensational performance from Wiletta – then slaps it down for being too raw – the spectators on both sides of me whipped their arms up in frustration. This isn’t an easy watch but it will absolutely move you.