I continue to read plays from the past I’ve never gotten to see. Mostly, as I’ve said before, I’m alternating between an anthology of plays that won the Pulitzer Prize early on and an anthology of post-war plays by Black writers.
Finally caught up with Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress. It’s been going through something of a revival in recent years. I see it was produced at the Arena Stage and Yale Rep and that, when we get to the other side of the pandemic, it’s scheduled for a New York production by the Roundabout.
Originally produced off-Broadway in 1955, the play concerns rehearsals for a play called Chaos in Belleville. A number of Black actors have been hired to appear in what is apparently a play about a racial incident in the South written by a white writer to be produced and directed by a white guy whose background is mostly credits in Hollywood. (There are rumblings that he is hoping to avoid catching the attention of investigators, probably a reference to the HUAC bullies’ habit of hounding showbiz liberals as a way of getting themselves into newspapers.) Not surprisingly, some of the actors find that the script doesn’t ring true to them. The dilemma: how to challenge what’s false without pissing off the Hollywood director and losing the job.
This reminded me of the way the Communist Party glommed onto the case of the Scottsboro Boys. Some became convinced that the Party would actually prefer the Boys to be found guilty so that they would have martyrs to help with Party recruitment. (There’s a fascinating but kind of lousy movie that parallels this story called Trial, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic attorney hired to defend a Mexican youth on a murder charge, Arthur Kennedy as the guy who uses the case to raise money for the Communist Party, and Juano Hernandez – playing the first Black judge in a Hollywood movie – trying to keep himself from being exploited for propaganda purposes during the proceedings.)
What I find particularly intriguing about Trouble in Mind is how a play more than 60 years old deals with the ever-pertinent question of dubious allies. There’s a quote from Jane Addams’s speech called “The Modern Lear” that stays with me: “In so far as philanthropists are cut off from … the code of ethics which rule the body of men, from the great moral life springing from our common experiences, so long as they are ‘good to people,’ rather than ‘with them,’ they are bound to accomplish a large amount of harm.” She was writing about George Pullman, the 19th century Chicago industrialist who began by trying to pose as a benefactor to his employees and ended up being stunned and hurt when they turned against him (for good cause) and called a strike (the Pullman Strike of 1894) which ended up crippling the country for months. (I wrote a play about this called American Enterprise.) This idea of “good to” vs. “good with” has stayed with me. The Hollywood director thinks he is being “good to” his mostly Black cast …