How the Play Within the Play Portrays Tensions and Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049

In Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind a racially mixed group of actors and a white director and writer are rehearsing a Broadway play that is ostensibly anti-racism and anti-lynching. The white actors and director believe that Chaos in Belleville will impart a positive message of racial tolerance to its audience; they believe they are doing good work. Most of the black actors do not believe that this is true. These actors play the same kind of stereotypical servant roles in which they are always cast. They took these roles because they needed the work, not because they believe they are imparting any great social message. By looking at the parts of Chaos in Belleville being rehearsed, it becomes obvious that, in many ways, the world depicted in Chaos is not much different than Trouble. Only Wiletta’s rebellion and the strength she draws from her defiance is a significant divergence.

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The first part of Chaos in Belleville rehearsed is Act One, Scene Two, on page 15. This reading begins in Trouble in Mind in the middle of act one. When this scene opens, Carrie (played by Judy) asks her father, Renard (read by Eddie for the moment), if their black servants can have a barn dance to celebrate the birthday of Petunia (played by Millie). Renard does not want to have the dance now because there is an election at hand. He asks another black servant, Ruby (played by Wiletta) if she thinks they should. Ruby replies, ‘‘Lord, have mercy, Mr. Renard, don’t ask me ’cause I don’t know nothin’.’’ Carrie begs her father. Her father dismisses Ruby and Petunia to the porch while he talks to his daughter. Carrie pleads with him again, pointing out that she gave her word. Renard finally concedes, not without hesitation, and Carrie informs the women. Carrie goes to lay out her organdy dress, but Ruby insists on doing it for her. Carrie then decides to take a nap, and Petunia gives her blessing.

This scene has several striking parallels to Trouble in Mind. Renard controls the lives of his servants just as Al Manners, the director of Chaos, believes he knows what is right for his cast. The Judge has the last say, like Manners. Both do not get straight answers out of their African-American servants/ cast because the men do not really want to hear what they have to say. Renard and Manners are convinced of their superiority, and act accordingly. However, both men are completely out of touch with the reality of the servants/cast. Similarly, Renard’s daughter Carrie and Judy both need affirmation and act like naive children to get it. Though Judy fears Manners a bit, she needs attention and to be told what to do. She also wants to do what is right even if it seems racist.

There is more going on beneath the surface for the African-American characters. Millie does not like playing the servant role and tries to undermine Judy at every turn during the reading. Ironically, her character says to Carrie, ‘‘you just one of God’s golden-haired angels.’’ Millie does not believe this. Also ironic in some ways is the striking parallel is between Wiletta at this stage of Trouble and her character. When Ruby is asked by Renard for her opinion, she denies having one. A few lines later, Manners looks to Wiletta for an opinion on whether ‘‘darkies’’ is an acceptable phrase considering the context. Like Renard, he does not really want her true opinion on this subject. She tells Manners, ‘‘Lord, have mercy, don’t ask me, ’cause I don’t know.’’ This is the exact line from the script. This causes Wiletta much anxiety and is the beginning of her rebellion against Manners. Indeed, Wiletta’s desire to express an opinion on the play is the primary source of dramatic tension by act two.

From this scene, Manners immediately jumps back to...

(The entire section contains 3081 words.)

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