Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
The “theater” of the title is Howard Theater, an urban cabaret in the 1920’s, set amid the “life of nigger alleys, of pool rooms and restaurants and near-beer saloons.” As its afternoon rehearsal begins, the manager’s brother John sits in the center of the theater and watches. He is a light-skinned African American, educated, urbane, and conscious of his social status.
The chorus girls themselves hold no interest for John. He coldly contemplates them and rejects them. They are beautiful, but beneath him socially; all of their movements are studied and routine. Although the women are unworthy of John and of his attention, the music and the glitter and the artificial passion soon begin to excite him. He wills his mind to put the excitement down, but when he sees Dorris appear on stage, he senses that there is something different about her. Unlike the other dancers, she is really engaged, really “throwing herself into it.” He cannot help noticing and desiring her. Dorris has bushy black hair, a lemon-colored face, and full red lips. John tries to suppress his desire for her; she is beneath him socially, despite her beauty. It would never work.
Dorris notices John noticing her. She desires him as well and asks her partner about him. He identifies John as the manager’s brother, and “dictie” (slang for blacks who are overconscious of their social class). This makes Dorris angry. She knows she is just as good as John is, even if she is not educated or working in a respectable profession. She doubles her efforts in the dance, trying her best to impress John. If he is to refuse her, he may as well know what he is passing up. Soon her involvement takes her beyond trying to impress. The dance takes over her mind and body. All the men in the theater, and even in the alleyway, stop what they are doing to watch. Her spontaneity and energy are contagious; the other dancers start to move more freely as well.
John cannot take his eyes off Dorris as she swings her body and bobs her head. Beautiful and exciting, she is clearly dancing and singing for him now. No longer can he use his intellect to control his feelings for her. For her part, Dorris is imagining what she might have with John: passion, love, marriage, a family, and a stable home. He seems to be the sort of man who can give her all that. Her dance expresses the joy of possibility. John gazes at her and daydreams about meeting her, touching her, and watching her dance in private.
When the music finally ends, John is still dreaming about Dorris and does not realize that the dance is over. Dorris looks at him for approval, but he is not looking at her because he is staring off into space, seeing her in his dreams. Hurt to think that John has become indifferent to her so quickly, and saddened at the death of her own dreams, Dorris flees the stage in tears. The story ends. The two never even speak.
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