'Who's the final word on somebody else's story?'
Speaker 1: (00:00)
The old globe theater just opened a production of Alice Childress play trouble in mind, set in New York in 1957, the play revolves around a leading black actress and a diverse cast. Who in the story are rehearsing a new play written by a white playwright. It's a play within a play I'm joined by the director of the old Globes production of trouble in mind, the Alicia Turner Sonnenberg, who is also one of the Globe's current resident artist, the Alicia. Welcome. Thank you. And also joining us is actor storyteller and playwright, BB mama. One of the actors in the production BB. Welcome.
Speaker 2: (00:38)
Hello, thank you. So
Speaker 1: (00:40)
This work is, is a play within a play. Our characters are taking part in a play written by a white playwright put on by a white director, but it features a multiracial cast. And it's an anti-lynching story Delicia. What are some of the conflicts that this play brings forward?
Speaker 3: (00:58)
This play examines a uses the play within a play format to examine stereotypes and race and the limits of understanding between a white producing team and, and black performers as they begin rehearsal. Um, and who gets to this, this idea? And this is important to me as a director or as an artist in general of who's the final word on somebody else's story, right. I mean, they're telling, um, uh, an anti lynching story with a white playwright and when a black actor asks questions about that story or the truths in that story, her questions get dismissed.
Speaker 1: (01:51)
Yeah. And Alice Childres wrote this script nearly 67 years ago. Delicia, what can you tell us about the history of this play? I mean, do we have a sense today about how it was re received by theaters and audiences?
Speaker 3: (02:05)
Well, in 55 it appeared off Broadway and then it was gonna be on Broadway. And Al's, Childres went through two years of rewrites because the producers loved the play, the Broadway producers, but they wanted her to change the ending. Um, and so she changed the ending, but then she changed it back. And so ultimately it didn't make it to Broadway.
Speaker 1: (02:29)
Hmm. So let's get to know some of these characters. Um, we have Oleta mayor the main character and the lead in the play within a play, uh, performed by Ramona Keller and then Millie Davis. Who's a younger actress in the production by BB mama. Uh, BB, tell us, uh, a little bit about your character and what's on the line for her in this story.
Speaker 2: (02:52)
That's a great question. Millie is bright and fun and charismatic, and, um, I think is really excited to be performing on Broadway and performing, um, this show with these people and is also aware of the stereotypes that are present, not only in this play, but in, in the work that she's done past and sort of just takes it on the chin, you know, is happy to be working, happy to be in the room. However, when starts to, uh, bring voice to some of, um, the problems that, uh, arise when they start working with the script, I think Millie, um, um, her eyes are, are open and she really starts to, you know, support and, and understand that, you know, what, what is on the line, however, that con that conflicts with her desire to like do the job and be employed and pay the bills. So it's a really interesting conflict. Hmm.
Speaker 1: (04:00)
Do you recognize any parts of your own acting journey in Millie's story?
Speaker 2: (04:05)
Ooh, uh, I think so. I think so. Um, I've definitely, uh, Millie is really cool cuz she, she speaks her mind. Um, and there have been the been times where I've found myself questioning, uh, the work I was doing or like the way we were doing the work and having to, you know, find the balance between how much do you say? Um, but also like how much do you, uh, hold your tongue in order to, or relationships or, or the work that you're doing? So, yeah, definitely
Speaker 1: (04:46)
Indeed. Uh, Delicia, you have been directing and working in theater in San Diego for a long time. Um, what's something you look for in a script. I mean, is there a moment when you're reading a play and, and you know, you just have to work on it
Speaker 3: (05:01)
When I'm reading a script? Um, my, I always trust my first instinct and I, I, I'm a director who's moved by words, so I love poetry. So I'm when I in a play, I love, um, the way that playwright uses language to reveal ideas or, um, deeper truths. Um, I also love bold characters and, um, and I look for work that is smart and, um, surprising. I love to be surprised in the theater and my personal life, not so much, but in, in my work I love surprises. And as an audience member viewing theater, I love it when a, when a PLA when I think a story is going one way and it, and something happens.
Speaker 1: (05:56)
Yeah. The plot twist there is always, um, interesting, uh, and not
Speaker 3: (06:01)
Just plot twists, but real true, a character that I think I have a beat on that does something that is completely surprising, that explodes and, um, into some truths. And that is what I love about trouble in mind. Like we are watching a comedy until we're not.
Speaker 1: (06:21)
Hmm. And BB, you know, the theater saw a tremendous reckoning over the last few years about race and diversity. Um, but did real change happen? I mean 67 years, uh, later. Um, is this still, so that clouds, the American theater?
Speaker 2: (06:40)
I, I think so. Absolutely. When I read trouble in mind, it was painfully clear. We need to hear this story now. Um, and I think it says a lot that almost 67 years later, the conflicts in this, this play our conflicts that we are still dealing with today showing us that they haven't been resolved, which means that we have to keep talking about them. And I think that this, this plays an incredible conversation starter starter. I think it's really bravely written, um, and really opened up the eyes and, and give some perspective to the people who get the opportunity to see it.
Speaker 3: (07:20)
And I'm gonna agree with be everything that BB said. Um, it, it's interesting because one of the people in the room, um, in our rehearsal room asked me if this play had been updated and it made me thrilled that the audience was gonna see a play that is still relevant, but also sad that the questions that this play asked 67 years ago are still questions that we're asking today.
Speaker 1: (07:51)
The old Globes production of trouble in mind runs through March 13th. I've been speaking with the plays director, Delicia, Turner Sonenberg and actor, BB mama. Thank you both.
Speaker 2: (08:02)
Thank you. Thank.
With Alice Childress' 1955 play "Trouble in Mind," The Old Globe brings questions and conflicts about diversity in the American theater to center stage.
Alice Childress' 1955 play, "Trouble in Mind" comes to life on The Old Globe's stage this month, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. The play stars Ramona Keller, Bibi Mama, Victor Morris, Tom Bloom and more. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who is one of The Globe's current resident artists, and Bibi Mama joined Midday Edition to discuss the work.
The plot takes place in the mid-1950s and centers around actress Wiletta Mayer, played by Ramona Keller in The Globe's production. Wiletta is cast as the lead in the "play-within-a-play," an anti-lynching play written by a white playwright and directed by a white director.
Turner Sonnenberg said that as the story unfolds, audiences see the reality of the rehearsal process, as well as the way the primary conflicts begin to take root.
"The audience gets a real inside scoop into a theatricalized version of the rehearsal process, until there's some conflict about the story or the script and performances, all the performance sort of gets stripped away and we're left with the people and their truth," she said.
67 years later
Playwright Alice Childress wrote "Trouble in Mind" in 1955, nearly 67 years ago. It first appeared Off-Broadway, then was picked up by Broadway producers. According to Turner Sonnenberg, those producers requested edits, sending Childress into two years of rewrites.
"They wanted her to change the ending, and so she changed the ending. But then she changed it back, so ultimately, it didn't make it to Broadway," said Turner Sonnenberg, who also directed a San Diego production of "Trouble in Mind" in 2015 at Moxie Theatre.
"Trouble in Mind" eventually found a home on Broadway, in a Roundabout Theatre Company production that opened October 2021 — nearly three decades after Childress' death.
'The limits of understanding'
"This play uses the 'play-within-a-play' format to example stereotypes and race and the limits of understanding between a white producing team and Black performers as they begin rehearsal," Turner-Sonnenberg said. "This is important to me as a director — or as an artist in general: who's the final word on somebody else's story?"
She said that the conflict arises when the actors raise concerns about the way their story and culture is portrayed.
"They're telling an anti-lynching story with a white playwright. And when a Black actor asks questions about that story or the truths in that story, her questions get dismissed," Turner Sonnenberg said.
'How much do you hold your tongue?'
San Diego-based actor and playwright Bibi Mama portrays Millie Davis, a younger actress working with Wiletta on the fictional production.
"Millie is bright and fun and charismatic, and I think is really excited to be performing on Broadway and performing this show with these people — and is also aware of the stereotypes that are present not only in this play, but in the work that she's done in the past and sort of just takes it on the chin," said Mama. "When Wiletta starts to bring voice to some of the problems that arise when they start working with the script, I think Millie, her eyes are open and she really starts to support and understand that, what is on the line, however, that conflicts with her desire to do the job and be employed and pay the bills."
Mama said that in some ways, she recognized some of Millie's journey as an actress.
"There have been times where I found myself questioning the work I was doing, or the way we were doing the work, and having to find the balance between how much do you say but also how much do you hold your tongue in order to preserve relationships or the work that you're doing?" Mama said.
A story still relevant
Mama said that the issues and conflicts in this play still plague the American theater, 67 years later. That even with the tremendous reckoning over the last few years about race, diversity and a need for systemic change, "Trouble in Mind" is still eye-opening and resonant.
"As an actor and a playwright, as an artist in general, whenever I approach a piece of work, whether it's something I'm trying to write or something I'm trying to direct or something I'm trying to act in, I ask myself: why this story, and why now," Mama said. "When I read 'Trouble in Mind,' it was painfully clear we need to hear this story now. It says a lot that almost 67 years later, the conflicts in this play are conflicts that we are still dealing with today, showing us that they haven't been resolved, which means that we have to keep talking about them."
Turner Sonnenberg added that someone asked her early on in rehearsals if the script had been updated — it hasn't, of course, since Childress' 1957 rewrites. "It made me thrilled that the audience was going to see a play that is still relevant, but also sad that the questions that this play asked 67 years ago are still questions that we're asking today, even in art," she said.
'We're watching a comedy, until we're not'
Turner Sonnenberg also looks for brilliant writing and surprises in a plot, and Childress' play delivered both along with its relevance.
"I'm a director who's moved by words. So I love poetry in a play. I love the way the playwright uses language to reveal ideas or deeper truths. I also love bold characters, and I look for work that is smart and surprising," Turner Sonnenberg said. "Not just plot twists, but a character that I think I have a bead on that does something that is completely surprising, that explodes into some truth. And that is what I love about 'Trouble in Mind.' Like, we're watching a comedy, until we're not."
"Trouble in Mind" preview performances continue at The Old Globe through Wednesday, Feb. 9. Opens Thursday Feb. 10 through Mar. 13, 2022.
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