For the third year in a row, the English Department has teamed up with the Aurora Theater, located on Addison Street in Berkeley, to offer a special event to the Berkeley community: in conjunction with a performance at the Aurora, Berkeley professors gather for a panel that discusses the play for an audience of alumni, faculty, students and other interested theater-goers. Emeritus Professor Joel Altman, who sits on the board of the Aurora, has successfully organized this event since 2008 and sees it as a partnership that allows the department to reach out into the community while the Aurora benefits by introducing new people to its theater. This year, Joel was assisted by Darrend Brown in the English Department office who was instrumental in publicizing the symposium to Bay Area English alums, English Professors Maura Nolan and Dan Blanton who worked to ensure that current undergraduate students had tickets to the event and Aurora’s Managing Director, Julie Saltzman, who set up both the computer system for the direct sale of tickets and the reception that took place between the panel and the show itself.
The symposium took place on September 25 and addressed Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind. It drew over 65 people to the discussion among English Professors Elizabeth Abel and Abdul JanMohamed, Associate Professor Brandi Catanese, from African-American Studies and the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, and Robin Stanton, the director of the play. The panel consisted of informal presentations that, Joel says, presented a cohesive picture of the historical and aesthetic context for Childress’s complex and delicate drama, followed by a discussion with the audience. And, yes, there were handouts!
Written in 1955, the play is about a mixed-race group of actors who are rehearsing a Broadway play that deals with a contemporary lynching. The play-within-a-play takes place in an unnamed rural place in the South and involves a white household with black servants. The plot revolves around the young son of the servants who goes to a “get-out-the-vote” meeting to increase the African-American turnout in a current election. He gets into trouble at this meeting and comes home seeking his family’s help. There is discussion over what to do, and when the son’s mother urges him to turn himself over to the white authorities, we leave the play-within-the-play to return to the narrative frame. The actress playing the mother argues with the white director that no mother would knowingly ask her son to give himself up and put himself in the hands of a possibly violent and almost certainly racist group. Though lectured by the director that she has to stick with the script, the actress refuses to play the role as written, and as the rehearsal falls apart, so too does the actress’s dream of playing a great dramatic role to Broadway audiences. When the rest of the cast walks off, the actress is left with an old Irish doorman who encourages her to perform for herself, and she recites Psalm 133, which poignantly begins, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is / For brethren to dwell together in unity!” The play ends in a moment of radiant transcendence, as the actress delivers her performance to the packed house watching Childress’s drama, in spite of the collapse of the fictional play-within-the-play.
The panel began with Professor Catanese, who offered a fascinating account of the history of black theater in America and of the concern among black actors that they were perpetuating the stereotype of the “acquiescent black” in theatrical performance, which sustains a similar image in the cultural imagination. The actress playing the mother subverts this role, she pointed out, by not yielding to the white director. Professor Abel proposed a startling real-world subtext for “Trouble in Mind”: the recent murder of Emmett Till, a young black youth from Chicago who was lynched and mutilated in Mississippi less than six months before the play opened in New York. The actress playing the mother in the play-within-the-play, Abel suggested, must have been thinking of Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, who had her son’s body shipped back to Chicago for an open-casket funeral to show what had been done to him. For the original audiences, too, the memory of this event was still vivid. Professor JanMohamed added further historical insight by pointing out how lynchings were on the rise in the early twentieth century, especially in the decades after World War I. These informed the sensibility of what he calls the “death-bound subject,” a term that describes African-American subjectivity informed by the omnipresent threat of sudden, arbitrary death, which was used as a coercive political and ideological instrument during the years of Jim Crow.
Finally, director Robin Stanton discussed what it was like to direct a mixed-race cast in a situation that echoed many of the issues dramatized in the play itself. She described how a director must work with people coming from places very different from her own and cannot pretend that she fully understands their experiences. In repeated rehearsals, she pointed out, the director and the actors move toward understanding each other and build a trust that can still honor the disparity between people. Brandi Catanese ended the panel succinctly when she proposed that perhaps racial understanding itself should be thought of as a “continuous rehearsal.”