Kathy A. Perkins: Shining a Light on Trouble in Mind

Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Wiletta
Photo by Jon Gardiner

We’ve been very excited about our production of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, but perhaps none more so than company member Kathy A. Perkins. She is lighting designer for the show, but her connection is also personal. In 1984, she was asked to design for the premiere of Childress’ Gullah at Third World Theater in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Kathy worked closely with Childress, and their collaboration grew into friendship. Kathy considers her a mentor, and you can still hear the admiration in her voice when she speaks of her. “I knew her the last ten years of her life. She was an amazing woman. Very passionate about what she did.”

Alice Childress working on Gullah at Third World Theater in 1984. Photo courtesy of Kathy A. Perkins.

Childress’ life was political, and it was reflected in her work. She wrote about strong women with integrity who were not afraid to speak up even when there was a cost. Kathy elaborates,

The women she wrote were so outspoken that they sacrificed financial gain or work, which was what Alice Childress was about. She suffered financially because she refused to compromise when it came to her work. She was a good person of incredible integrity and principles. She believed in what she wrote. She’d say, “This is the story I want to tell, if you’re not interested in this story, then go somewhere else.” 

We learned in our earlier posts by Mark Perry about how true this was, especially relating to Trouble in Mind. If you think that the political issues of the story are ones specific to the 1950s when the play was written, think again. “It is so timely,” Kathy states. “Even though this play was written 60 years ago, everything she’s talking about is still happening.” She talks of her experience as an African-American woman in the theatre.

There are so few plays being produced by black women in the major theatres, and there are even fewer black women directing. The trend is usually a lot of black plays are being directed by white directors. I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but I’m saying where do black women go to direct? Are they being allowed to direct a white play? I have to remind theatre companies that I have the same MFA in lighting that my white collegues have. I can do Shakespeare. You don’t have to call me just for “the black show.” So, in a sense, things haven’t really changed.

Alice Childress working on Gullah at Third World Theater in 1984. Photo courtesy of Kathy A. Perkins.

Kathy’s approach to each project varies from show to show, but the work that Kathy has created on our stage for this production is particularly inspired. She says she drew from “the spirit of Alice Childress” and designed how she expects she would have wanted the stage to look. Childress was into realism with as little distraction as possible. Kathy captures the dinginess of backstage work lights, finding sepia colors to add a vintage quality of the era. The lights get brighter as the show builds, going from warm to cool hues, paralleling the tension of the play.

One of the most poignant moments of the play is delivered by Roger Robinson as Sheldon describing a disturbing event from his past. You will see for yourself Kathy’s hand in the scene and just how integral her design work is to this piece.

Jorge Donoso, Carey Cox, Roger Robinson, Suzette Azariah Gunn and Schuyler Scott Mastain. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Trouble in Mind is onstage through February 8. Click here and buy your tickets now.