Themes and Meanings

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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.”

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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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 worn by black actors in...

(This entire section contains 606 words.)

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the theater parallel the limitations placed upon African Americans in society, such as segregated housing, schooling, and transportation.

In defense of theater executives, Al Manners comments that the stereotypes of African Americans which reach the stage are perpetuated because such images make a play commercially successful. He explains that the American public is not ready to be told the unadulterated truth about African Americans and that theater executives will not raise a hundred thousand dollars unless a play has the potential to be successful.

On another level, Trouble in Mind pokes fun at the cutthroat competition for the few roles offered to African Americans. Childress demonstrates the conflicts black actors engage in as they insult one another and flatter white directors in order to secure these demeaning parts. Sheldon is accustomed to making compromises. He needs to feed his family and exchanges what Wiletta terms dignity for small, degrading parts in plays. While Wiletta and Millie fling barbs at Sheldon for his refusal to demand script changes, Sheldon lashes out by telling them that the reason African Americans cannot get jobs in the theater is that someone is always complaining about unfair treatment. He is grateful to have work and wishes the other African Americans would be satisfied as well. Childress demonstrates that the bickering among the African Americans only hurts their chances of pressuring theater executives to present more accurate images of African Americans.

Not only did Childress hold up the American theater as racist, but she also claimed that it is sexist. The women in the cast are treated with obvious condescension. When Millie offers suggestions about interpretation, Manners tells her that he loves the fabulous way that she dresses or that she is beautiful in order to silence her. When Wiletta disagrees with the images of African Americans, he tells her that she is totally out of her element. Judy, however, becomes Manners’s scapegoat. He openly abuses her verbally and physically. Almost immediately after Judy boasts that she is a graduate of the Yale University drama program, Manners begins to victimize her. Apparently intimidated by Judy’s credentials—and perhaps insecure about his own abilities—Manners shouts at her, orders her around, forcefully grabs her by the shoulders to direct her to various stage positions, silences her with a wave of his hand, and talks to her in baby talk—none of which he does to any of the male cast members. Manners’s behavior toward Judy, Wiletta, and Millie clearly demonstrates Childress’s notion that women in the American theater of the 1950’s were treated as immature stepchildren.


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Race and Racism
Every aspect of Trouble in Mind is touched by race and/or racism. Each African-American character discusses his or her experience as a black actor in a business dominated by whites. In the beginning, Millie, Wiletta, and Sheldon try to guide John, the neophyte, about how to behave around their white counterparts. Sheldon and Millie advocate getting along and not getting too close Wiletta does as well, until the end of the play when she can no longer tolerate the condescending attitude of the white director, Manners. But in their collective advice, the actors also reveal their true feelings about the play they are rehearsing for, Chaos on Belleville. As with many of the productions they have appeared in, they feel their roles are stereotypical and the script awful. Yet they take these jobs because they need the work.

For their part, the white people involved with the production vary in their reactions to the black actors. Bill O’Wray, an actor, says he is not prejudiced, but he does not want to eat lunch with them. Judy, the young actress, is idealistic about race relations and believes the performance will play a positive role in addressing racial concerns. Yet when the black actors discuss the problems they have dealing with whites, Judy resents what they are saying. Manners also claims to not be racist, but he will not listen to Wiletta’s concerns about the plays. He also treats his black actors differently than his white actors. When Wiletta finally pushes Manners too far, he reveals in an outburst that she should not compare herself to him, presumably because of her race. The complexities of race and racism drive the plot and define characters in Trouble in Mind.

While racism is explored in an explicit manner, sexism is much more implicit in the text of Trouble in Mind. In the beginning of the play, for example, John is not completely comfortable with the advice Wiletta gives him. It is partially due to racial concerns, but also because of what she is telling him. Most of the sexism, however, is focused on the character of Manners, the white director. He treats the female cast members differently than their male counterparts. For example, Manners invades Judy’s space moments after meeting her in a way that makes her uncomfortable. He does not do the same thing with any of the male characters. Similarly, when Manners finds out Judy attended drama school at Yale, he calls her names when he wants to put her in her place. This shows his discomfort with her being perhaps better educated than him.

Manners is more demeaning in his actions towards Wiletta. When he throws a piece of paper on the ground, he makes her pick it up. He will not let Judy, John, nor Sheldon do it. Manners tells the cast that he did this as a trick to get them thinking about acting, though Wiletta does not see it that way. Further, Manners never lets Wiletta express her opinion. Each time she tries to raise a concern about the script, he tells her not to think or compliments her to change the subject or says the problem is with her, not the script. Manners also does the same thing to Millie. When Wiletta finally forces the issue, Manners reveals his true feelings about her: in his mind, she cannot be compared to him. As a black woman, Manners cannot see Wiletta as his equal.

Peer Pressure
The African-American characters in Trouble in Mind put pressure on each other to act in certain ways. From the beginning, Wiletta, Millie, and Sheldon try to curb John’s behavior so that they can all get along with the white director and actors. Sheldon and Millie physically keep him from Judy when she is first introduced. Sheldon also repeatedly says that he wants peace and harmony among the black actors in front of the others. He believes this will help them keep their jobs now and get jobs in the future. Before the situation with Wiletta and Manners blows up completely, Sheldon does his part to maintain such an amity. The other black actors also jump in on occasion. Even after the blow-up, Sheldon wants Wiletta to apologize to Manners. He believes such an apology will smooth things over. Wiletta will not bow to such pressure to conform, and she is left alone with Henry at the end of the play.