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'Who's the final word on somebody else's story?'

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The Old Globe
Black playwrite Alice Childress is shown in an undated photo. Her 1955 play "Trouble in Mind" is currently on view at The Old Globe.

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.

RELATED: 5 plays to see in San Diego in February

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Rich Soublet II
Actors Michael Zachary Tunstill, Ramona Keller, Bibi Mama and Victor Morris are shown in The Old Globe's "Trouble in Mind," on stage through Mar. 13, 2022.

'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.

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Rich Soublet II
Actors Victor Morris, Ramona Keller and Bibi Mama are shown in a scene from The Old Globe's production of "Trouble in Mind," which runs through Mar. 13, 2022.

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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The Old Globe Presents 'Trouble in Mind'

This event is in the past.
Saturday, February 5, 2022 at 7 PM
Ongoing until March 13, 2022
Old Globe Theatre
Visit site to see ticket pricing
From '5 plays to see in San Diego in February' (KPBS feature)In 1955, Alice Childress wrote "Trouble in Mind" about a Black actress performing in an anti-lynching play, but that play-within-a-play was written by a white playwright and directed by a white man.Racism, rivalries, misogyny, inequality, and the fraying sense of well-meaningness are all aired out as the production gets ready — and this is how the "Trouble in Mind" plot unfolds.The Old Globe has assembled an excellent cast and crew for this story, with San Diego's Delicia Turner Sonnenberg as director, Ramona Keller as the lead and local Bibi Mama (a playwright in her own right) also in the cast.—Julia Dixon Evans, KPBSListen to our interview on KPBS Midday Edition with director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and actor Bibi Mama, and read the full feature here.From the theater:The Old Globe is proud to present "Trouble in Mind", a thrilling new production of a too-often neglected American classic. About the play —New York, 1955. A leading Black actress and a multiracial cast rehearse a challenging new Broadway play set in the South. Backstage rivalries and showbiz egos cause excitement of their own, but artistic differences between the cast and the White director soon bubble to the surface, revealing the truths that American drama covers over and the ways in which even well-meaning people can harm others under the guise of helping. Contains strong language.The New York Times recently called Alice Childress’s groundbreaking Trouble in Mind “a rich, unsettling play that lingers in one’s memory long after its conclusion.” "Trouble in Mind" will be showing at The Old Globe from Saturday, February 5 through Sunday, March 13. Open Caption Performance on Saturday, February 26, 2022 at p.m.Click here for ticket and subscription information.For more information, please visit www.theoldglobe.org or call (619) 234-5623.