Women, Lynching, and Theater in 2011

October 05, 2011

This past summer, talk of the movie The Help saturated every media outlet. Despite declarations of its historical inaccuracies, including an open letter from the Association of Black Women Historians, the film’s portrait of life for black and white women in 1960s Mississippi reigned. Meanwhile, there was utter silence about an event that sheds light on Mississippi’s past and present: the racist murder of James Craig Anderson in June 2011. The silence around Anderson’s death — and his family’s turmoil in its wake — point to the nation’s lack of interest in the complexities of black life, suggesting that it doesn’t have to be history to be forgotten. But placing that silence alongside the passionate responses to The Help is also revealing because it highlights a refusal to think about American women and racial violence simultaneously. In this climate, several U.S. theaters are proving themselves committed to drama’s loftiest ideals by encouraging their audiences to grapple with challenging issues.

Productions of lynching dramas that spotlight women’s encounters with violence are especially timely and courageous. The New York International Fringe Festival, Indiana Repertory Theatre, and Chicago’s Victory Gardens have all recently presented plays with lynching as a major theme, which I discussed on my personal blog. Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., is currently reviving the 1955 drama Trouble in Mind, which focuses on the staging of a play about lynching and the lead actor’s objection to its portrayal of African Americans. The protagonist of Alice Childress’ classic is a black woman actor, Wiletta Mayer. She insists that her character’s actions in the play are not realistic, which leads to frequent rehearsal interruptions. Tensions rise between her and the white director as well as with the other actors as they pressure her to appease the white director so that they can get back to work.

The play encourages audiences to consider what kinds of stories gain the support of the mainstream entertainment industry. When African Americans are featured, as The Help demonstrates, they often serve as props that illuminate a white character’s story. Their presence enables the depiction of ethical dilemmas that whites must face to mature and evolve. To capture large audiences, these stories are never actually about African Americans, their experiences, or perspectives.

Toward the end of the action, Mayer’s director, Al Manners, explodes because he is tired of her insistence that the play that they are rehearsing should tell some kind of truth: “Get wise, there’s a damned few of us interested in putting on a colored show at all, much less one that’s going to say anything.”

Ultimately, by placing a spotlight on a black woman’s perspective on portrayals of racial violence, the play asks audiences to grapple with questions of how black people’s behaviors and opinions are represented. What are the limitations of such representations, and what do they say about our country? Because it raises those questions, Childress’ work proves as relevant today as when it first appeared in New York City in 1955.

The revival of Trouble in Mind at Arena Stage runs through October 23. With this controversial classic in its 2011–12 season, this theater has made a bold choice that will help its audiences view American culture more critically. While many believe that The Help has commanded so much attention because it is facilitating fresh, rigorous conversations, we are really witnessing something very routine: the role that the mainstream marketing machine plays in designating what is worthy of distribution and discussion and the very specific kinds of stories that it supports.

This post was written by 2009–10 AAUW American Fellow Koritha Mitchell. She is an associate professor of English at the Ohio State University. Her book, Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930, was released by the University of Illinois Press earlier this month.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Andrea M Dorsey says:

    Very eloquent; I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said so succinctly and dead-on:

    “The play [Trouble in Mind] encourages audiences to consider what kinds of stories gain the support of the mainstream entertainment industry. When African Americans are featured, as The Help demonstrates, they often serve as props that illuminate a white character’s story. Their presence enables the depiction of ethical dilemmas that whites must face to mature and evolve. To capture large audiences, these stories are never actually about African Americans, their experiences, or perspectives.”

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