The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059

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.

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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, and Ruby refuses to help him, which seems unnatural to Wiletta. Soon she can neither sing nor read the way Manners wants. He forces her to get angry, then is appalled by the depth of her emotion.

After Manners leaves the stage, Wiletta struggles with a headache from the tension. Sheldon tries to comfort her, saying that they should not mind humiliation because they are trying to accomplish something. However, Wiletta insists that she does mind. “Yeah, we all mind,” Sheldon admits, echoing the play’s title, “but you got to swaller what you mind.”

In act 2, Bill O’Wray rehearses his big speech as Renard, the white landowner. His plea for racial tolerance sounds impressive, but it is filled with platitudes. Job’s parents wait anxiously for his arrival. Wiletta, as Ruby, sings and prays for her son; Sheldon, as Job’s father, whittles and prays; both are symbolically impotent. Ruby orders Job, who has voted against her wishes, to kneel: “Tell ’em you sorry, tell ’em you done wrong!” She directs him to give himself up to the oncoming mob.

Wiletta, still trying to make her role work, questions why a black woman would knowingly send her son to his death. Why can’t the boy escape? “We don’t want to antagonize the audience,” Manners...

(The entire section contains 5890 words.)

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