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San Diego Moxie Theatre Presents 'Trouble In Mind'

In this production photo, actress Monique Gaffney who plays Wiletta Mayer in the play "Trouble in Mind" is shown.
Darren Scott
In this production photo, actress Monique Gaffney who plays Wiletta Mayer in the play "Trouble in Mind" is shown.
San Diego Moxie Theatre Presents "Trouble In Mind"
Moxie Theatre Presents "Trouble In Mind" GUESTSDelicia Turner Sonnenberg, artistic director, Moxie Theatre Monique Gaffney, actress, "Trouble in Mind"

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I Maureen Cavanaugh. A play within a play with a back story . That's the intriguing complexity of a new production at Moxie Theatre. They are presenting "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress. It's a play written in the 1950s which just missed becoming the first Broadway production written by an African-American woman. It's a comedy with serious themes about race and gender, about when to go along to get along, and when to take a stand. Joining me are two women involved in the Moxie Theatre production Alicia who directed the play and welcome to the program. ________________________________________ Thank you. ________________________________________ Also Monique who plays the lead role. Welcome Monique. ________________________________________ Thank you and good morning ________________________________________ "Trouble in Mind" is a play that has been rediscovered in recent years. There's been a number of productions of this play . Why did you want to bring it to a San Diego audience? ________________________________________ I knew Alice Childress but I didn't know this play and as I was doing research for our 10th anniversary season and talk to colleagues around the country they said what about "Trouble in Mind" ? It's enjoying a resurgence. I read it and was blown away by it. It very much fits Moxie Theatre mission of images of women in culture and I knew it was a play I wanted to do. ________________________________________ Can you give us a synopsis of the play? ________________________________________ "Trouble in Mind" is about a racially integrated cast to begin rehearsals for what they hope will be the next Broadway hits. The character played by Monique has paid her dues throughout the year playing stereotypical supporting roles and is waiting for her chance to be a star but there is conflict when she questions the white director about the truth of her role as written by a white male playwright. ________________________________________ This is a play within a play. This is a play about a play in production. ________________________________________ The actors are reversing a plate with an anti-lynching theme called chaos in Belleville. ________________________________________ Monique you play the lead role. Tell us about her. ________________________________________ She is very strong-willed. She is determined and she is stoic in the beginning. She takes quite a journey from beginning to end. I think the most important thing about her and she refuses to let the horse determine her self worth and she finds it important to affirm her black humanity and defend its. ________________________________________ You were gracious enough to read a bit from the play now. ________________________________________ Yes I am. ________________________________________ This is Monique and she will read from "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress ________________________________________ I will give you a little bit of a set up. Here is when she gives newcomer John advice on how to be a working black actor when he asks her what it's like to be a part of the art of Peter. ________________________________________ Show business. It's just business. Colored folks are in no Peter. You ever do a professional show before? No. Don't let the man know that. They don't like us to go to school. They want us to be naturals. You know, just born with a gift. Plus they want you to be experienced also. Tell them you were in the last revival of Porgy and Bess. They don't know the difference. You were one of the children. Management hates folks who need jobs. They get the least money, the least respect, most times they don't get the job. That don't get too [ NULL ] . They don't like that either. You have to cater to these fools too. Supposed the director walks in, looks around and says if the dust around here doesn't choke us to death we'll be able to freeze in Compton. We laugh and dispute him. Mr. Man, it ain't that bad. White folks can't stand unhappy [ NULL ] so laugh. Laugh when it isn't funny at all. ________________________________________ That is Monique. She is reading from "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress . It is now in production at Moxie Theatre. That was so good. Thank you so much for that. Money, what made you want to be a part of this production? ________________________________________ Many things but I think the first thing other than the fact that she called me up and said I need you, the legacy that my father left me with. I think the San Diego community as a whole also. I grew up around black theater my entire life. In the beginning I wanted to be a dancer but later on I chose to be an actor. I think because my father did a lot of socially relevant political theater, it's in my blood and became a part of me. Once I was presented with this play and I read it, I said oh yes. This is a part for me. I was somewhat trepidations about it because I thought, wait a minute. This is a woman of a certain age and confronting issues that I feel like I still confront as an African-American woman in show business and in theater and creating art. It spoke to me. I said this is something I have to do and I aspire to go to the next level. She challenged me with that at the first rehearsal where we did a read through. When we were doing table work she asked everyone what are you working on? I thought what am I working on? I'm doing a play. I had to sit and think about what I wanted to work on and in particular with reference to this play. I said I want to go to the next level so I need you to call me out on things that don't work for me. I knew I wanted to work hard because of the story. ________________________________________ As Monique is saying this 60-year-old play is dealing with issues that are still really very contemporary. How was it embraced back in the 50s? You have white people like to see [ NULL ] laughing, that is the kind of line that is really pretty tough for a 1950s audience. ________________________________________ The play, a little about the history of the play, it premiered in 1955 off-Broadway and one in OB an option for Broadway and was going to open in the spring of 1957. The producers wanted rewrites and she just couldn't after two years of working on it, she couldn't bring herself to write a happy ending that they wanted. It never made it to Broadway. Then raise and of the son became the first play by an African-American woman on Broadway. ________________________________________ Tell us more about Alice Childress, she was an actress right? ________________________________________ She was an actress and also she became a playwright and she was also an author. She performed with the American [ NULL ] theater in Harlem that pounded hard to get rolls out of black theater so she started creating roles. ________________________________________ That's why she wrote the play. ________________________________________ Yes. ________________________________________ In what we and let me drill down a little bit with you Monique, in what way is this play relevant today? ________________________________________ I'll speak from the perspective of being an African-American actress and I have to say over the course of my career where I am at now which is midcareer, still aspiring to get to Broadway, I would love to get there and I think I don't want to be known as a black actor. Oftentimes that is what happens. Whether it's theater or when you go to LA or Hollywood, they are like you are black and you will do the black thing. It's always been roles that are either stereo typical or go to the point where you are playing the same black woman is what it seems to be. I don't often get cast in place that are just looking for women for that matter. Being trapped in this narrow boxes very frustrating. I'm not just a black actor. I want to be an actress. It's the same affirmation that is made in the play where she goes through a diatribe and gets to the point where she says I want to be an actress despite what is happening at this time which is the 1950s. She makes references to the Little Rock nine and desegregation and talks about references to Emmett till so there are major historical things happening. There are major role historical things happening now that we can reference Michael Brown, Eric Garner in New York City. ________________________________________ Another thing, Hollywood has come under criticism for this year's almost all white Oscar nominations. Some are looking at that insane roles for people of color remain stereo typical and they remain too few. How does that compare with the-year-old world? ________________________________________ -- Theater world does ________________________________________ I'm a director and a producer so unfortunate I choose the work I do and work on. I can choose for myself diversity of work. I'm aware that that is not true for actors and all directors of color. On the artistic director of a very vibrant woman run theater and it's important to us in our values and the audience and donors expect us to have diverse images of women on stage. I'm very fortunate in that way. There is not a lack -- we read a lot of plays, so there's not a lack of roles, just a lack of production. ________________________________________ And your take on the Oscar list and how that might relate to how things are in the theater as opposed to movies.Monique? ________________________________________ In terms of theater the want to say there's more opportunities now for actors of color in the theater world. I believe there are. But I also agree that the number of productions that are done, I'm busy this month because it's February and I hate to say that but it's true because it's black history month. I'm getting calls for various projects and I'm doing a production with her and it's all in the framework of black history month. It's great that I need to work more than one month a year. I think that happens across the board with African-American actors. What is unique about this play to me is that and this is something I shared is the world ready for black characters to be playing the protagonist, in particular a woman so we can be the driving force within driving our own narrative? That's a rare thing for a woman. For Alice Childress to have created this play in that time period and for us to be doing it now is huge. ________________________________________ That's remarkable. ________________________________________ It doesn't happen often enough. ________________________________________ I want to talk to you a moment about Moxie Theatre. It's one of the smaller theater companies in town but it's celebrating its 10th anniversary. How is it marking this milestone? What are you doing this year? ________________________________________ We're doing a diversity of place this year and all of them are juicy and have juicy female roles. They are racially diverse and diverse in terms of age as well. It's what we do. We're happy we're part of making San Diego above the national average when it comes to that. We're having a big party for our 10th anniversary on March 21 and it's a circus theme and it's called night circus with circus performers, Photo Booth, and food by the wild time company. We will have a big celebration. ________________________________________ It sounds great. What are you hoping that people take away from this production when they leave after they have seen it, what kind of conversations are you hoping start or are sparked by this? ________________________________________ The play is so funny. It's really a comedy drama. It gets serious that there is a lot of humor and races so hard to talk about. One thing we hope audience takes away if they are able to talk about race in an easier way. That makes it easier to talk about race, I should say. We also hope they recognize how far we have gone and how far we still have to go. ________________________________________ Starting a conversation about race even though it's scary, about the roles of women and the roles of lax or people of color in any arena isn't a port in conversation to have it until a time we don't need to have that conversation ________________________________________ Monique, when people stop laughing what would you like them to think about after seeing the play? ________________________________________ When they stop laughing, you know I would like them to focus without giving away too much of the play, I want them to by the end of the play have a sense of change, of hope, of reconciliation that we can do this. That this is possible. And that even though we have not, that bar, we have, some distance compared to 1955 or 1957 until 2015 as far as races concerned and we made some progress but we have that much further to go ________________________________________ I want to thank you both so much. I've been speaking with the ladies from the Moxie Theatre and the lead actor Monique. To play his "Trouble in Mind" and runs through February 22 at Moxie Theatre. Thank you so much ________________________________________ Thank you.

A play within a play with a backstory. That's the intriguing complexity of a new production at Moxie Theatre on El Cajon Boulevard.

The company is presenting "Trouble in Mind" by the late Alice Childress. It was written in the 1950s.

It's a comedy with serious themes about race and gender and when to take a stand.


San Diego actress Monique Gaffney stars as Wiletta Mayer, an African-American actress who, after spending her career playing stereotypical roles, gets the chance to play a leading role in the fictional play “Chaos in Belleville.” But a battle quickly ensues between Mayer, the other black actors and the white director over his portrayal of African-Americans and his treatment of women.

And now to the backstory. "Trouble in Mind" was supposed to go to Broadway after winning an Obie Award, but the producers wanted to change the ending, and Childress didn't approve.

"She couldn't bring herself to write the happy ending that they wanted so it never made it to Broadway," the theater's artistic director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, said Monday on KPBS Midday Edition.

Gaffney said the play is still prevalent among African-American actors today.

"She's confronting issues that I still confront as an African-American woman," Gaffney said. "It spoke to me clearly."


Gaffney said many African-American actors are often given stereotypical roles.

"I don't want to be known as the black actor, and I feel it's been that way," Gaffney said.

Moxie Theatre is celebrating its 10th year making productions primarily by female playwrights that aim to create more diverse and honest images of women.

"Trouble in Mind" runs through Feb. 22. For show times and ticket information, go to Moxie Theatre's website.