“WHITE folks can’t stand unhappy negroes,” African-American actress Wiletta Mayer warns rookie John Nevins as Trouble in Mind opens.

Laugh at the (white) director’s jokes, slap a grin on your face, don’t overstep, gratify the audience, play up to their ego and maybe you’ll be cast again – maybe.

With all the humorous asides, and aping of bigoted directors determined to infantilise black actors, pigeonhole them into outdated and (frankly baffling) types and caricatures, Alice Childress’s play is a scathing look at backstage life in an American theatre in the 1950s. Even more so seeing as it was penned and first performed in the 50s – a skewering few would have dared to attempt at the time, and to some extent today.

The play follows Wiletta, who has spent a lifetime building a career in the theatre. Now she is on Broadway at last, rehearsing an anti-lynching play, Chaos in Belleville, written by a white playwright and directed by a rather hot-headed white director. As rehearsals progress, she finds it increasingly difficult to relate to the part of the meek Southern maid she must somehow bring to life and faces a difficult decision: should she swallow her pride and compromise her values for a stab at a lead role on Broadway?

Tanya Moodie is simply stellar as the conflicted Wiletta, whose early good-humoured cynicism at the status of black actors, soon gives way to confusion and unspeakable rage at her place in show business, and more broadly society. ‘I want to be an actress,” she pleads to an empty playhouse, at the end of her tether.

RSC actor Joseph Marcell, better known for his role as Geoffrey the English butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is assured and deeply moving as seemingly subservient actor Sheldon Forrester. Forever flattering the director’s overblown ego, he is, it emerges, far more clued-in than any of the black cast on the dire consequences of disobedience and insubordination for “coloured people.”

Daniel Ezra’s portrayal of naïve John Nevins is flawlessly nuanced. The moment, in a particularly prickly scene where the director’s disdain towards “coloureds” is ultimately exposed, it finally dawns on him that a trouper approach will ultimately not earn him white folks’ respect is heart-breaking.

Unsettling, sharp without every falling into moralising, Trouble in Mind is a gem. Oh that there were more plays like this on stage.

Trouble in Mind runs at the Ustinov until December 17.

Marion Sauvebois