More than 60 years have passed since the first staging of “Trouble in Mind,” a satirical drama about the difficulties that a racially mixed theater troupe faces as it works to put on a show.
Opening Friday at the Guthrie Theater, the play has had a resurgence in recent years. That may be due to its thematic currency at a time when Hollywood, in particular, has been called out for its lack of diversity.
Playwright Alice Childress became the first black woman to win an Obie Award after the show’s 1955 New York debut. This production features another first: Seattle-based director Valerie Curtis-Newton is the only black woman ever to helm a show on a Guthrie main stage.
“The American theater is slow to change, although we’re doing arguably better than Hollywood,” Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj said. “Here’s a play exploring some of the same themes that remain current today. The play is straight-up funny, and built so intelligently to be so.”
We spoke with Curtis-Newton, a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Washington who now heads the university’s theater program, about her life, playwright Childress and the ways in which “Trouble” resonates today.
Q: Tell us how you became a theater artist.
A: I grew up outside of Hartford, Conn. My father was in the Air Force. And I worked in insurance before quitting that work to go to graduate school. I’d been doing theater at night, in all of my free time, and decided that I wanted to get trained. I wanted to find out what I knew, and why some of the things I was doing intuitively, why they worked.
Q: How does “Trouble” relate to you being the first black woman to direct a main-stage Guthrie play?
A: We’re still continuing to wrestle for the power to have some say in our own representation. That’s what the play is about, and that’s what this opportunity is about for me. That’s what Childress was doing in all her work, saying, “Let me just tell the truth about some people, working people.” Even though this is set in the theater, she’s dealing with working-class actors. And I think this question of representation and visibility is foundational to breaking barriers.
Q: You directed this play in Seattle two years ago. How is this version different?
A Well, I know the characters better, even though I feel a little blind because I don’t know Minneapolis very well. I want to be honest, and give something that will jump over the footlights to my audience. It’s very funny. It’s like Shaw that way.
Q: Let’s talk about the play. There’s an argument that Al Manners, a white director, and Wiletta Mayer, a black actor, are having. Tell us about it.
A: Well, first, what I love about Childress’ writing is that it has a kind of intersectionality before we even had a word for it. She was saying that we don’t just have to be double-conscious but triple- and quadruple-conscious. She’s quoted as saying she liked the way Kurosawa made “Rashomon.” It’s not just about the incident that happened. She wanted to make a play in which every character is telling the truth.
There are no real villains in “Trouble in Mind.” There are people who’re caught inside the stereotypes about them.
Q: This play brings up two huge issues for many successful black Americans. One is the burden of representation. The other is the temptation to become a spokesperson.
A: The main character of this play has had some modicum of success by being a favorite, by being easy to get along with. There’s a line in the play when someone says to her, “You’ve never given me any trouble before.” She’s a go-along, get-along kind of person. And she’s understood that to walk through certain doors, she’s had to accept certain things. Now she’s of an age where she wants to do more, where she wants to do work to represent more truth.
Q: Do you identify with her there?
A: I feel like I’ve had that kind of maturation process myself, and I feel free in every environment. I go to places expecting that I will never be asked back. When I’ve tried to make the work with an eye towards getting the next job, the work suffers, my spirit suffers, all of it suffers. Now I go after making the most beautiful, artful, excellent work that I can make as an offering to the communities I visit. And that is what I’m doing in Minneapolis.