Arts Desk

Strange as Fiction: A Chat With Trouble in Mind Director Irene Lewis

E. Faye Butler in "Trouble in Mind"

At once sobering and edifying, Alice Childress’ 1957 Trouble in Mind, currently running at Arena Stage, is a biting backstage satire of the theater world of the 1950s.

The play forces us consider the internal struggles that artists of color face during theater rehearsals. Here, a white director leads a well-meaning but stereotype-ridden drama about lynching, forcing the play's black actors to weigh whether they should speak up, even if doing so may have professional repurcussions.

The play's narrative mirrors actual life. Trouble in Mind was nearly the first work by a black female playwright to be staged on Broadway. When producers asked Childress to change the ending, she declined. Two years later, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun made history in Trouble in Mind's place.

In a sense, Arena Stage's production mirrors themes in the play, too: Its director, Irene Lewis, is white. Arts Desk spoke with Lewis about the work, what it means to be an “out-of-touch” white director, and what the play says about courage.

Washington City Paper: I read your statement in the Playbill that you originally hesitated to direct his play because you felt the representation of the white director was dated.

Irene Lewis: That is exactly it! Over the years, people have mentioned the play to me and after I read it, I thought, this is so dated, you know. So finally, I asked an African-American actress without a caveat to read the play, thinking I would be seconded. And so she casually said, after reading it, "I like it." I asked, "Don’t you find that white director a bit dated?" And she said no. And I thought, "Oh, here’s another moment of a white person out of touch."

WCP: You’ve been working in the theater for a very long time. Obviously you didn’t identify with that white director character in the play. What was that out-of-touch moment  like?

IL: Well let me say, It’s been a long line of moments of being educated.

WCP: Which is what the theater is supposed to do, right?

IL: African-American theater for a white lady, yes.

WCP: Theater at large is supposed to educate us about the human condition.

IL: Some shows educate us; some shows just entertain us. But the African-American experience, which I thought I knew a little something about—not a lot—I thought for sure, this white guy, this just can’t be. And you know Tracie Thoms had come and done a reading, and she talks about auditions, about getting in front of a television, and a 22-year old white guy says “No, no, no, that’s not black.” I mean being instructed. So I was stunned.

WCP: What was your interpretation of the work?

IL: I was just trying to convey what I thought Alice was trying to say. Quite frankly, I was stunned that a black woman in the 1950s would have the courage...I know myself very well. And know that I would not have the courage. But she did, and she also had the courage to say, "I’m not going to move if you want me to change the ending. I’m not moving. I’m not changing it." I was hoping that I would fully realize, or hopefully partially realize, her vision for this play.

WCP: Well some people would say that’s just foolish. Let’s take, for instance, the fact that you are a mentor figure for many actors, actors of color, coming up in the ranks. And an actor comes to you and says, “Irene, there’s a big production going on, I really want to be a part of it, but this character is stereotypical, flat, just awful.” What would you say to them?

IL: Each artist has to make their own decision. You know, as Henry says, you’ve got to take a lot in this work. An artist has to decide how much you need the job. It just depends on a lot of things. If you want to eat...

WCP: What would you like audiences to take away from this piece? Say, for instance, you walk outside and someone off the street comes up to you and tells you what they think about the play.

IL: At the end of the play, Wiletta picks up the script and says to Henry, “We got to go further and do better.” When Wiletta says this, she means as a race, stand up, with all of its baggage. But I think that’s what Alice was saying too.

The play runs through Oct. 23.

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