Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
Like the blues song from which it takes its title, Trouble in Mind portrays the no-win plight of African Americans struggling to survive in a white racist society. Wiletta can survive as an artist only by lying. Her opening scene advice to John foreshadows her final heroic catastrophe. Her honest assertion of pride and intelligence after a lifetime of capitulation echoes the historic heroism of Rosa Parks, who chose to sit down on a segregated bus and who thus began the end of segregation. Childress forces the audience or reader to acknowledge that Wiletta’s courage is the toll that racism demands every day from African Americans who can be honest or survive but not both. As a bourgeois tragedy protest play, Trouble in Mind calls U.S. citizens to action.
Never simplistic in her presentation of racism, Childress never presents all black characters as good and all white characters as evil. On the contrary, she shows how racism negatively affects everyone. As in her other plays, she makes her political statements through a meticulous creation of realistic characters who experience a classical recognition and reversal that forces them to change and grow in the two-day span of a drama that comes close to observing Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. With compassion, she creates complex characters who exhibit painful contradictions.
Being cast in “Chaos” forces each of the five white characters to respond to daily racism in ways that exhibit their true mettle. Al Manners, who initially presents himself to the cast as a liberal fighting against racism, is unmasked, even to himself, as racist. At the outset, he wields directorial power and unexamined white privilege. Manipulative and condescending, he bolsters his ego at the expense of the racial pride and artistic integrity of his African American actors. His sidekick Eddie survives by being a yes man and reinforcing Manners’ racism and his own impotence. Judy is shown to be capable of learning the realities of racism and ways of supporting the struggle against racism. She grows from the naïveté of one who believes the myths of her sugar-coated suburban upbringing to become a true ally of African Americans. Bill O’Wray recognizes but evades the horror of racist injustice and prejudice because it gives him indigestion. He is guilty of culpable ignorance and responsible for his own suffering. Henry, the doorman, is the only white character who does not see color. Possibly because of his own heritage of Irish oppression, he chooses to notice only artistic talent and personal integrity.
Each of the four African American characters responds to racism in a different way. Sheldon Forrester, who has perfected the “Uncle Tom” pose, has previously, although indirectly, supported racism by his complicity and by permitting racists such as Manners to continue to feel superior. The playwright, however, allows his character to grow from his first appearance, laughing at everything Manners says, to his rawly honest monologue describing a lynching in the second act. Wiletta’s display of courage and artistic integrity affects him. John Nevins seems to have made moral choices in the opposite direction. He chooses to play the role that the white director expects rather than assert his honest pride. It is ironic that after he initially resists Wiletta’s advice to act what he calls “Tommish,” he does, in fact, play the hypocrite in order to win Manners’ approval. By the second act, he, like Manners, is calling Wiletta his “sweetheart.” John and Sheldon exchange the “Tom” role in the end. Millie compensates for the humiliation of racist treatment by strutting around in expensive clothes, as if pride of...
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race and class were found in costumes. Wiletta’s honesty cracks her façade; she admits that she too needs acting jobs to survive. Even Wiletta’s heroism is not unmixed. Like Rosa Parks, she seems to have reached an inevitable boiling point at which hypocrisy is more killing to her soul than is losing a job. She must recognize, however, that her moral choice has consequences for others. Her resistance to the white director may close the play and put everybody out of work. Nevertheless, she chooses racial and artistic integrity above the economic survival of the whole cast. Like the classic tragic hero, she isolates herself from society by her act of hubris and heroism.