The year is 1957, and a group of actors have gathered to audition for roles in a new Broadway drama “Chaos in Belleville.” The play, unlike most other contemporary productions, incorporates both black and white actors and promises to deliver a liberal plea to society for tolerance and understanding. But the play, written and directed by white artists, quickly begins to demonstrate some of the social conflicts and issues it claims to criticize, and black actors clash with the director, Al Manners, played by Stephen Cefalu Jr. DRA ’19, dissatisfied with how their characters are portrayed in a “progressive” play.
This is the plot of Alice Childress’ semi-satirical play “Trouble in Mind,” originally produced in 1955 at the beginning of America’s civil rights movement. Now, the play is set to be the next in the Yale School of Drama’s production series, as Aneesha Kudtarkar’s DRA ’19 master’s thesis production in directing.
“Trouble in Mind” is a play that endeavors to blur the boundaries between reality and theater in an attempt to pass on its message to the audience, and it does a fantastic job. Sitting in a rehearsal for the play, I found myself observing external technical commentary on “Trouble in Mind” while simultaneously observing internal technical commentary of the play within a play. Three levels of reality were being shown together, one blending seamlessly into the next. Each person on stage was not only an actor from the Yale School of Drama, but also their character within “Trouble in Mind,” and, even deeper than that, playing their role within “Chaos in Belleville.” Often, I found it difficult to discern whether I was observing “Chaos in Belleville,” “Trouble In Mind” or reality — the three seemed to be constantly commenting on and refining one another. I was awoken from this dream state only by the intermittent calls for a scene or line to be revisited — and yet this was something also echoed within the play itself.
It is easy to see why the lines between realities may be blurred. The set of the play, designed by Alexander McCargar DRA ’20 is simple yet serves as a complex agent through which to draw us in to the interplay between the play itself and the play within a play. The stage is set up as one might expect for a 1950s tech rehearsal — with coat racks, desks and a ladder in the background and tape markings on the floor. In the aisles lie miscellaneous accoutrements of the theater, placing the audience not as secondary observers of “Chaos in Belleville” through the context of “Trouble in Mind”, but into the 1950s rehearsal of “Chaos in Belleville” itself. The transitions between the play within a play and “Trouble in Mind” are made easy through this static scenery that carries through from one reality to the next as well as through the behavior of the actors themselves.
“Trouble in Mind” presents to us two different realms of reality, the play within the play, “Chaos in Belleville,” and the play itself that we have come to see, “Trouble in Mind.” It is us who bring in the third dimension, the dimension of our own reality, 62 years after this play is set. While the actors may not break into our reality during the play, we are still a part of the action. We are the audience that Manners is trying to cater to, whether we like it or not. Because, even though it is easy to think that the problems faced in this play are over, the theatrical world still struggles with issues of power dynamics and representation.
At the crux of the play, Manners, when confronted by the contradictions his supposedly progressive play faces by the black actress Wiletta Mayer, played by Ciara Monique McMillian DRA ’20, cries, “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen, because one, they don’t believe it, two, they don’t want to believe it and three, they’re convinced they’re superior.” It is easy to think that we have overcome these issues, but the blending of the realms of the modern audience, the tech rehearsal of “Chaos in Belleville” and the play within a play itself, begs the question: What has changed?
“Trouble in Mind” opens at the University Theater on Feb. 2, 2019, and will run until Feb. 8.
Jake Kalodner | firstname.lastname@example.org .