By Emily Witt, Staff Writer
Graphic by Michael Burke
We are a nation obsessed with the idea of easy public consumption. We like our meals frozen and boxed, our vegetables packed into plastic bottles, our gay people jovial, our poor people content with their minimum wage, and our black communities silent whilst their men are jailed and shot in the street.
This undeniable truth is why Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, the play I am currently assistant directing at TTS, is still as uncomfortably-correct in 2016 as it was in 1957. During my nightly after-rehearsal commute, a line from the play constantly echoes in my head; “the American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen.” The “you” in this assertion is the black community. The American public is not only resistant to seeing black people the way that they want to be seen, the American public is resistant to accepting that we don’t all enter this world with the same set of tools for success. This willful ignorance is idealistic, offensive, and uneducated.
Trouble in Mind retains its relevance as the glaring push back from those on the wrong side of history continues. The country is undoubtedly experiencing a new resurgence in awareness of racial inequalities. The emergence of camera phones and social media have made the dehumanization of black bodies in this country undeniable. We are finally seeing the evidence of police officers taking black lives without provocation. Yet, so many in our society continue to deny the racism that is alive and well here in the good ole’ USA. The refusal to acknowledge this racism is an act of racism in itself. Those who reply to the Black Lives Matter movement with the rhetoric that “all lives matter,” completely miss the point: that actually, in this country, black people do not. I have often heard Conservatives purport that more white people are killed by cops than black people. Well, okay. Sure. That might be because 61% of the US is white, while only 12% of the US is black. Although black people are 12% of America’s population, 26% of police shooting victims were black in 2015. To rationalize these numbers is to support what they represent: the unabashed and often unpunished slaughter of African Americans and poor people.
Alice Childress’ play is an adept representation of art’s endeavor to awaken and educate. Childress herself was an African American actress who was tired of playing roles that vilified white people and depicted black people as content, soulful, and silent. So she wrote a role that was all her own. Trouble in Mind explores a rehearsal process for a new play called Chaos in Bellville that is meant to be progressive but instead reinforces stereotypes and lacks the intentionality for change. The black characters in Bellville lack agency, and as the play unfolds, we see that the white production team has a misguided opinion of what is groundbreaking. The play is set against the backdrop of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the subtle echoes of the time period pervade the space with lines like “they stone us when we try to go to school.” In 1957, these truths were easily ignored by most white Americans. This willful ignorance still exists almost 60 years later, as we witness the erosion of American democracy, and the prevalence of hatred in the USA.
Just as Childress was making art that unearthed the black struggle in 1957, writers and directors continue to go even further with this mission in 2016. The new Netflix documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, explores the institution of racism and how it began with a very foreboding caveat to the 13th amendment, which was meant to abolish slavery. Unless it is punishment for a crime. In a society where African Americans had just only been given their freedom, yet were still ruled by the white man, it is clear how this crafty addition to the amendment continues to perpetuate the indentured servitude of the black men in our prison system.
The stringent federal drug laws enacted by Ronald Reagan in 1982 incarcerated users instead of treating their addictions. Which, in turn, gave way to Bill Clinton’s devastating three-strikes law. This bill, which meant that anyone convicted of a serious crime with two minor convictions would go away for a life, was a major catalyst in the overpopulation of our prisons. The term “superpredator,” coined by the first lady at the time, Hillary Clinton, referred to African American youth that had the potential to become criminals. The Clintons have since apologized for their remarks, as well as acknowledged the power that those remarks had on the current racial landscape within our country’s prison system. Regardless of the apology, this issue rages on.
Artists are endeavoring to further illustrate the historical inequalities of the black experience in America. Just this past September, a play that explores the struggle of an African American transgender woman called TRANSit by Darren Canady and directed by Lisa Portes, premiered at Greenhouse Theater Center. TRANSit, which was written as a modern day companion piece to Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play, Dutchman, echoes the same sentiment of disparity in representation that Trouble in Mind does. An astonishingly similar line to “the American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen,” can be found in the closing scene of TRANSit. The white male friend of the protagonist, Veronica, says, “you want the world to just—just—just fucking TAKE you and sometimes it’s not ready.” While the theatre audience of 1957 might have shifted in their chairs during Childress’ play, I most certainly saw their discomfort during Canady’s. The progressive public still has leaps to make toward acceptance.
While 13th, analyzes contemporary slavery and indicts the audience to change the institution, Trouble in Mind and TRANSit indict their audiences to change the everyday. Great artists like Canady, DuVernay, and Childress force viewers to see what they may not be ready to see, but what they must see. The audience is implicit in their own education, simply by clicking a link or sitting in the theatre with open ears. Unfortunately, we cannot forcefully educate white Americans who choose to go the way of easy consumption. But at least within the theatre audience, we can empower black artists and embolden writers to create roles that give minorities agency and individuality.
We must always continue Childress’ plea to “go further, and do better.”