Before we get into a discussion of whether Alice Childress's play Trouble in Mind is climatic or episodic, let's take a moment to review these two terms. In a climatic plot, the action of a story or play begins relatively late in the overall story and covers a fairly short period of time. Climatic plays are limited in characters, acts, and scenes, and from a beginning conflict, one event leads to another as the action rises to a climax and then resolves. An episodic plot, on the other hand, often begins early in a story, and the action expands over long periods of time and multiple settings and scenes. The audience sees several episodes that may be linked by theme and character, but the action does not necessarily rise to a climax.
That said, how do we describe the plot of Trouble in Mind? I would argue that it is climatic. The action covers a short period of time, only a few days of rehearsals for the new play in which the characters are acting. We get the feeling, however, that, for at least some of the characters, the story of their acting careers started long ago and has covered much ground before they ever set foot on the stage for this new project. Wiletta, for instance, has been an actress for years. She has experienced all the ins and outs of navigating as a Black actress in a primarily white world of theater, and she shares quite a few tips with the newbie John.
Trouble in Mind is limited in characters, with only nine, all of whom interact repeatedly throughout the play, which takes place in only two acts. We glimpse a conflict at the beginning in Wiletta's dissatisfaction with the life of a Black actor or actress. She tells John not to “get too cocky,” to laugh at everything the white managers say because it “makes 'em feel superior,” and to tell the director exactly what he wants to hear (486). There's a certain way a Black actor or actress is expected to behave, she explains, yet we get the feeling that she is quite frustrated with the situation.
As the play continues and the characters rehearse their play within the play, Wiletta's frustration grows, and tensions heighten among the cast members and between the cast and the white director, Mr. Manners. Mr. Manners pushes the cast to act in new and unfamiliar ways, all the while being rather patronizing to the Black members. Racial tensions hover beneath the surface between Black and white cast members as well.
Finally, the play reaches its climax when Wiletta can no longer bear to act out a lie, as she views the script. She confronts Manners and speaks her mind both about the play and about her life as a Black actress, always consigned to small, stereotypical “character parts” (532). Manners shoots back about how his life in show business has not been easy either, but he makes a bad mistake that reveals his underlying prejudice, and he exits “confused and embarrassed” (536).
Trouble in Mind does not fully resolve its action, for we do not know if the play within the play will continue after Wiletta's outburst, but Wiletta herself reaches a kind of resolution as she stands on stage and dramatically recites Psalm 133 for Henry in a fine performance.