Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

Childress identifies herself as a “problem writer,” and her play treats issues of racism and sexism in the theater and in society. She is obviously concerned with the ways in which African Americans are invalidated as persons. Manners silences his cast by ignoring them, gesturing impatiently, or telling them not to interrupt. He patronizes Wiletta by informing her that the black characters of Chaos in Belleville are human beings, although the fictional white playwright depicts them as ignorant shufflers. Manners likewise invalidates the women in his cast, mocking Judy as “Yale” and warning Wiletta, when she continues to question the actions of her character, that “you are going to get a spanking.”

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Playwright-critic Elizabeth Brown-Guillory notes another consistent theme in Childress’s work, that of women making sacrifices. Wiletta is ready to risk her professional life because she must speak out against someone who threatens her human dignity. Millie also sacrifices dignity for the money she needs.

Several characters symbolically unmask. Manners, self-proclaimed friend of the Negro, betrays his own prejudice. Sheldon, who says he cannot read well yet who always knows his lines, reveals himself as an angry survivor, doing the only thing he knows how to do well. Millie, who has played the pampered darling, admits that she is desperate for a job. Wiletta drops her compliant mask and reclaims her pride, anger, and true majesty.

Trouble in Mind uses the common theatrical device of the play within a play to reveal a truth about the struggle of blacks in America. The line between inner and outer play effectively blurs as the actors move in and out of their roles. Wiletta unconsciously repeats one of Ruby’s lines in answer to a question from Manners, and Sheldon’s whittling while his “son” prepares to die mirrors his real life—going through empty motions.

The play’s irony is effective. Wiletta begins by advising John to survive by pretense, but as he grows more adept, she becomes less capable. Judy winces at the word “darkies” in her script, but the black actors insist that the word does not bother them. Method acting becomes a paradox for Wiletta. By searching for the truth of her role, she finds a truth she did not expect.

In several places, the dialogue separates into simultaneous conversations, usually with the white characters discussing one subject and the black characters another. As an example, Manners praises the hackneyed script of Chaos in Belleville while Sheldon, John, and Millie discuss the Montgomery bus boycott, underscoring the serious breakdown in communication between the races.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

Trouble in Mind is about the shoddy treatment that African Americans and white women receive both on and off the American stage, which becomes symbolic of society at large. It is also a satiric drama about white writers, producers, and directors, who, because they are unfamiliar with black life and culture, uphold inaccurate portraits. Alice Childress suggests that African Americans must strive for integrity in the theater by refusing to accept roles that depict them as selfless, subservient, exotic, or dehumanized creatures. Wiletta and Millie, in their roles as docile servants whose primary function in “Chaos in Belleville” is to sing and to pray, exemplify the stereotypes which dominated the stage of the 1950’s and which come under attack by Childress.

Trouble in Mind deals with the obstacles that many black actors face when they choose the theater as a career. Wiletta reminds the cast that Broadway shows are wholly owned and controlled by white men, who also create and manipulate the images of African Americans. The harnesses...

(The entire section contains 1780 words.)

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  • Characters
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