The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Trouble in Mind takes place on a Broadway stage where a group of actors are rehearsing a predictable southern melodrama, Chaos in Belleville, written and produced by whites and filled with racial stereotypes. Wiletta Mayer enters, speaking kindly to an elderly doorman who recognizes her from a musical in which she played years ago. A moment later John Nevins appears, thrilled with this opportunity. Wiletta advises the young man from her experience in white-dominated theater: He must not acknowledge he has studied drama, which might sound presumptuous, but should say that he appeared in Porgy and Bess, although he did not. She tells John to play the role of subservient black in order to succeed, and never to let director Al Manners know how much he really wants this job. The play, she admits, “stinks.” John, however, is sure that he will be a star, and she realizes that her advice is wasted.

Other cast members drift onstage. Millie Davis enters in a mink coat, commenting that she does not care if she works or not. Sheldon Forrester and Judy Sears follow. Sheldon has been ill and laments his loss of work. Judy, who is white, has just graduated from Yale; this is her first professional role, and she is enthusiastic but awkward. To demonstrate that she is not prejudiced, she ventures her belief that “people are the same,” unaware that others see this as a denial of their experience as African Americans.

Manners, who directed a Civil War film in which Sheldon and Wiletta appeared, enters. He exhibits unconscious racist and sexist attitudes by ordering coffee and Danish for the cast but ignoring Sheldon’s request for jelly doughnuts. Noticing Judy, Manners moves too close to her; when she backs away, he takes offense. He praises John for his dramatic training (which has not been mentioned), but Judy, who volunteers her Yale background, is dismissed. When she makes a mistake, he parades her forcibly around the stage, then throws paper on the stage in a tantrum. Although others jump to retrieve the paper, Manners orders Wiletta to pick it up. Wiletta, startled, responds, “I ain’t the damn janitor!” Embarrassed, Manners tries to pretend that all of them have been acting.

In Chaos in Belleville, Wiletta and Sheldon play John’s sharecropper parents. Wiletta tells Manners that she knows what he wants from her song (Ruby, her character, sings whenever she is worried), but he insists that she probe Ruby’s motivation and think about what she is feeling. Ruby’s son Job is about to be lynched because he dared to vote,...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)