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,...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Trouble in Mind is set on a Broadway stage as the characters rehearse “Chaos in Belleville,” a play written, directed, and produced by whites which is saturated with stereotypes of African Americans who respond to oppression with subservience. Act 1 opens with Wiletta Mayer, a middle-aged veteran actor, accepting accolades from the doorman, who recognizes her from past performances. Wiletta is joined by John Nevins, a novice actor. Wiletta admires John, particularly when she discovers that he is the son of her girlhood friend. Sensing John’s eagerness to excel in the theater and to please the director, Wiletta takes it upon herself to coach John in the art of deception. She gives him advice on how to survive and succeed on the American stage, which popularizes stereotypes of African Americans. Wiletta admonishes John to do his very best to anticipate the white director’s wishes and moods. She tells him that he must laugh, cry, or shuffle on demand in order to keep a part in a play and to earn a pittance. She boldly informs him that he must play the Uncle Tom, the servile black person who flatters whites in order to secure favors. She says that twenty years in the theater have taught her that any demonstration of assertiveness on the part of a black actor may result in unemployment. When John proudly asserts that he intends to succeed in the theater without compromising his integrity, Wiletta essentially tells him that he is a fool and abandons her efforts to serve as his mentor.

The two actors are joined by Millie Davis, a thirty-five-year-old black actor who has become disillusioned by the Aunt Jemima roles she has had to play. While Millie is flaunting her mink coat and boasting that her husband really does not want her to work, Judy Sears and Sheldon Forrester enter. Judy, a young white actor who has recently been graduated from Yale University, is optimistic that the American stage will embrace women. Sheldon, an elderly black actor who is accustomed to settling for any role he can get, wants all other black actors to make as few disturbances as possible about characterization.

While the group waits for the director to arrive, the black actors speak freely about the plight of African Americans both on and off the American stage. They discuss causes of racial unrest, including the Little Rock school desegregation incident and the protests in Montgomery, Alabama (the play is set during the 1950’s). Wiletta and Millie tease each other about the limiting roles, as either mammies or ladies of the evening, they have played. They remind each other that they have played every flower (Gardenia, Magnolia, Chrysanthemum, Petunia) and every jewel (Crystal, Pearl, Opal, Ruby). Sheldon, afraid that the whites will...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The main ideas of Trouble in Mind are conveyed through Alice Childress’s manipulation of metadrama—drama about drama. The play-within-the-play is constructed so that its performance is set apart from the main action, with the cast of the primary play recognizing the existence of the inner play—the cast members of Trouble in Mind know that they have come together to rehearse the play “Chaos in Belleville.” Childress links the inner world of the secondary play, “Chaos in Belleville,” to the inner world of the primary play, Trouble in Mind, both of which mirror the outer world as one laden with racism, sexism, and poverty.

The world of “Chaos in Belleville” is one in which poor African Americans are lynched for trying to exercise their rights. The characters in “Chaos in Belleville,” which is set shortly after the end of slavery, are depicted as poor, dejected, submissive people who relinquish any semblance of power in favor of protection from the law. Similarly, in the world of Trouble in Mind, African Americans discuss segregated housing and schools, racial violence, boycottings, riots, and stereotypical theatrical roles. Like the house servants in “Chaos in Belleville,” John and Sheldon are docile and obsequious. All the characters, during the course of rehearsal, alternate back and forth so frequently between the primary and the secondary play that it becomes difficult for the audience to...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Trouble in Mind presents a play within a play, pointing out ironic parallels between the frame story of the actors rehearsing and “Chaos in Belleville,” the play being rehearsed, a naturalistic portrayal of Southern lynching. In reality, “Chaos” acts out the racist stereotypes it seems to be protesting. It presents civil rights struggles in the late 1950’s in which a young black man named Job, played by John, wants to register to vote, although his mother, Petunia, played by Wiletta, tries to restrain him for fear of racist reprisals. Meanwhile, Carrie, the plantation owner’s Southern belle daughter, played by Judy, urges her father to let the “darkies” have a “stomp” to celebrate her maid Ruby’s birthday (played by Millie). The scene does nothing to advance the plot but plays up the playwright’s assumptions about black/white relations in the South. When Job faces racist reprisals, Carrie begs her father to protect him by carting him off to jail and away from a lynch mob. Predictably, the mob lynches Job, while his mother, Petunia, croons sentimental spirituals. Throughout the crisis, Job’s father (played by Sheldon) sits on the porch whittling a stick and uttering nonsense in theatrically garbled black dialect.

In the opening scene, the actors express delight at landing roles in a Broadway play. Before the other actors arrive, Wiletta tells John that she thinks the play is worthless both from an artistic and a political perspective. She plans to praise Manners for choosing it, however, to laugh when expected to, and to do exactly what he asks. John calls her survival strategy “Tommish.”

When Al Manners and Eddie Fenton arrive, Wiletta finds it difficult to act out the hypocrisy she has been promoting. In order to illustrate the value of “method” acting, a psychological technique by which the actor gets inside the...

(The entire section is 769 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Trouble in Mind is the first full-length play produced on the professional New York stage with a middle-aged black woman as protagonist. Childress began her career in theater as an actress. Like Wiletta, she was discouraged by the lack of substantial roles for actresses such as herself and by having only sexist and racist stereotypes to choose. Her first play, the one-act Florence (1949), set in a Jim Crow train station in the deep South, features a middle-aged black woman. Her two most famous feminist plays, Wedding Band (1966) and Wine in the Wilderness (1969), which have been frequently anthologized in collections of women’s drama, along with Trouble in Mind, present intelligent, courageous, self-educated, working-class black women as heroes. In all three full-length plays, the protagonists stand up to racists and sexists who see the women only through their own prejudice.

Childress often compares her diversely oppressed, solitary, middle-aged black female heroes with other black female characters who have similar problems but who make different choices. In Trouble in Mind, Childress presents both Wiletta and Millie as working artists. As Wiletta’s foil, Millie mentions her husband, who works as a dining car porter; but Wiletta has no outside life or family. Both Millie and Wiletta work to support themselves as other working women do. Throughout the history of Western drama, female characters rarely appear except as mother of, daughter of, or wife of a more significant male character. To create isolated heroic female characters (regardless of race, class, or age) is an act of feminist courage. When Wiletta argues with the dishonest creation of the character she plays, she speaks out against mother-blaming with no reference to her own maternal status. By contrast, Judy regards her first Broadway role as a means of escape from the stultifying suburbs. Whereas Judy’s situation is less severe than that of the black women, Childress invites spectators to applaud Judy’s flight from bourgeois boredom. She also shows Judy learning about racism and developing a social conscience that conflicts with the ready-made answers of racist white America.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In the mid-1950s, the United States was a world leader on several fronts. Home to many scientific and technological innovations, America was...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Trouble in Mind takes place in New York City in fall of 1957. By the author’s own estimation, the play is a...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1955: Marian Anderson is the first black singer to appear with the Metropolitan Opera.

Today: There are many black...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare and contrast Wiletta in Trouble in Mind to Jackie ‘‘Moms’’ Mabley in Childress’s 1987 play Moms: A Praise Play...

(The entire section is 121 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Trouble in Mind was filmed by the BBC as a television movie.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf, a play by Notozake Shange published in 1977. The play...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp....

(The entire section is 311 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. A good overview, by decade, of African American playwrights and plays produced in New York’s professional theater. Includes an analysis of Trouble in Mind. Abramson praises Childress for refusing to compromise her ideals but regrets her tendency to sermonize.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. An extensive study of the pioneering work of Childress, among others, and of the unique vision of black women playwrights....

(The entire section is 379 words.)