The curtain rises on “a corner in lower Manhattan,” where three streets meet. The street to the left is all white, that to the right is all black. In the spring evening, four white and four black children play marbles; among the children are Ella Downey, Shorty, and Mickey, all white, along with Jim Harris and Joe, who are black. As the sun sets, the children realize that they must go home, but Jim and Ella linger. When the others tease them, Jim chases them away. Alone, Jim tells Ella that he has been drinking chalk and water to make himself white, while Ella wishes she were black. Despite their racial difference, they agree that he will be her fellow, she his girl. As the scene ends, she throws a kiss to him.
Nine years pass before the next scene. The childish taunting has turned darker, the racial distinctions more pronounced. The setting is the same, but on this spring night, Jim and Ella are being graduated from high school. Their other friends will not be joining them; Mickey has become a prizefighter, while Shorty and Joe have begun a life of crime. All three resent Jim’s attempt to educate himself. Ella, too, no longer cares for him and spurns his offer of help whenever she needs a friend. His attempt to persuade Mickey to leave Ella alone also fails; only the appearance of the police saves Jim from a beating. Although Jim has been looking forward to graduation, he is devastated by Ella’s treatment, and the curtain falls as he sits immobilized, unable to move on to the high school.
Five years later, Ella and Jim meet again at the same place. Mickey has seduced and abandoned her, and her child by him has died. Shorty offers to add her to his stable of prostitutes, but she refuses. Instead, she accepts Jim’s marriage proposal. In the fourth and final scene of the first act, the wedding occurs despite the obvious hostility of both black and white...
(The entire section is 772 words.)