Issues of Race in Alice Childress’ "Trouble in Mind"
Trouble in Mind,Alice Childress’metaplay, a play within a play, shows her audience that racial hierarchy always plays out on stage and in society. Childress makes Trouble in Mind and Chaos in Belleville, the play put on by the cast,a mini-plantation which functions as a microcosm of society. Trouble in Mind shows how stereotypes and racism are perpetuated and imbedded in past and current society. As a result the White patriarchy is maintained and challenges still exist for anyone considered an other—females and minorities.
Al Manners, the producer, believes people share equal rights until he is confronted with the lies he can no longer hold back. Judith E. Barlowe believes that Manners “is a 1950s liberal forced to confront both his own hypocrisy and the damage caused by his cowardice (472). Manners automatically and almost systematically tries to “other” his cast by calling Judy “Yale” (496). She is no longer White or a female but a product of education. Manners essentially splits the cast into the haves and the have nots in both plays (Trouble in Mind and Chaos in Belleville). Even though Wiletta persuades John to hide his education, Manners still recognizes that John has potential to emulate Whites (487). Manners explains that Blacks in Chaos in Belleville are “simple, backward people but they’re human beings” (526). Therefore, Blacks in Chaos bare no resemblance to the Blacks in Trouble. If the inspiration for these characters came from true Black folk, there is no way that geography can be a determining factor for difference. Manners goes on to state, “It does not matter that they’re Negroes. Black, white, green or purple, I maintain there is only one race…the human race” and “Don’t think ‘Negro,’ think ‘people’” (526). As if running for a political office, Manners tells the cast what he thinks they want to hear. But Manners’ beliefs become entangled, as it is unclear if he is still talking about the Blacks in Chaos or the Blacks in real life. Not too long before Manners’ progressive speech he called the Blacks in Chaos simple and backward. Manners finally tells the truth when he is confronted with the reality that Blacks and Whites are the same until compared. Wiletta asks Manners, “Would you send your son out to be murdered?” (537). J. W. Loguen, a fugitive slave, asks the same question of his former mistress: “Woman, did you raise you own children for the market? […] the whipping post?” (Takaki 115). Manners’ reply almost seems the rehearsed belief that has been passed down from White father to White son: “Don’t compare yourself to me! What goes for my son doesn’t necessarily go for yours! Don’t compare him [John]… with three strikes against him, don’t compare him with my son, they’ve got nothing in common…not a Goddamn thing!” (537). The one man who put on Chaos in Belleville because he is a generous man turns out to be a racist. Manners walks a fine line between being noble and a White supremacist. At the one moment when truth is revealed and change may come, Manners calls off rehearsal to gather his composure.
Judy Sears, a White actress fresh out of Yale acting school, and her character Carrie think everyone shares an otherness that makes them potential equals. What Judy hopes the audience will learn form Chaos is that “people are the same, […] that people are people” (Childress 491). Judy has not been tainted by the thoughts of the real world yet. She is still optimistic. But Judy does realize that at some point people just have to fit in: “John, you’re a puppet with strings and so am I. Everyone’s a stranger and I’m the strangest of all” (530). Judy acknowledges that she shares an otherness with most of the members of the cast. However, Judy does not realize that she is not at the bottom of the totem pole. Judy does not have to be modest about completing Yale drama school while John is taught by Wiletta to not say a word about his education (Childress 494). Carrie, the Southerner’s daughter, is just as hopeful as Judy about everyone being human. In Chaos, Carrie/Judy tells her father, Mr. Renard/Bill O'Wray, she “can’t help feeling sorry for them, they [slaves] didn’t ask to be born. […] If we’re superior we should prove it by our actions” (Childress 501). As an attempt to break down centuries of stereotypes, Carrie voices what Blacks and abolitionists have always thought. Carrie also fights for the slaves to celebrate their birthday like anyone else (499). But Judy cannot bring herself to say, “let the darkies have their fun” (499). Judy suggests a change but is surprisingly overruled by John Nevins who thinks that if that’s how Blacks were referred to then darkies is fine (499-500). In the script “darkies” is not even capitalized. While Judy tries to fight for what is right, she is going against centuries of tradition.
Bill O’Wray, an experienced White actor, asserts that Blacks and Whites share a commonality in that they both suffer. After Wiletta has to explain her status as a Black actress, Bill says, “Wiletta, I’ve had to do roles that I found objectionable” (Childress 535). Bill O'Wray cannot understand the difference between suffering and settling. He becomes indignant when the Black cast complains about lack of fulfilling roles: “I’m the villain. I get plenty of work, forgive me” (540). Bill’s biggest compromise is taking a role in which he turns into a vampire or other hideous creatures. But at least society recognizes him a human being in the end. Nevertheless, Bill ends the scene by going to study his lines for his soap opera role while Sheldon is left memorizing the first act of Chaos in Belleville (540). Bill O’Wray is the only actor that gets steady jobs because of race and sex (Jennings 28). The suffering Bill notices is from the highest tier of White patriarchy: Manners, Bronson and his character Mr. Renard. Manners is quick to note that Bronson, the writer of Chaos in Belleville,got a lot of flack for writing Chaos in Belleville as did Manners for producing the show (495). In addition, Manners proclaims that he is “White” and he has “trouble up to here,” which include an ex-wife, Whites stealing his ideas, and not getting any handouts (536-7). But Manners, Bronson, and O’Wray have possibilities, opportunities, and, more importantly, choice. Mr. Renard has similar advantages as a White slave owner. Renard’s suffering is dealing with the dilemma of Black slaves: “Heretofore we’ve gotten along with our Nigra population…but times change” (511). While there is no discussion about what changed the times, the assumption is that the “Nigra population” mention wanting to exercise rights, especially to vote. Wiletta/Ruby must ask Mr. Renard to help her boy because he has the power to do so, not Ruby (the mother), Sam (the father), or Carrie (the abolitionist thinking daughter) (522). Mr. Renard’s suffering stems from possibly having a group of unruly slaves on his hands. Much like Manners, Bronson, and O’Wray, Renard has the ability to do away with his problem and to make choices.
John Nevins, a Black actor with a formal education, and his character Job believe race is a social construct and Blacks can have as much agency as Whites. John proves his point when he starts to imitate Al Manners’ mannerism. While John “sees himself on the brink of escaping WILETTA, MILLIE, and SHELDON [,] It’s becoming very easy to conform to MANNER’S pattern” as the stage directions indicate (517). Also, John shows a complete transformation when he addresses Wiletta in the same way as Manners: “Wiletta, my dear, you’re my sweetheart, I love you madly…” (530). John adopts the thinking and training of Whites. Manners confirms John’s belief while giving compliments to Judy and John while practically ignoring the rest of the cast: “Yale, [Judy] you’re right on track. John, what can I say? You’re great” (524). Soon John is confident enough to correct a White person. When Judy says the eatery is located on Sixth Avenue, John quickly says, “Correction. Correction, Avenue of the Americas” (529). John believes that in trying to assimilate he gains the rights of Whites. When he has had enough of being placed on his knees as Job, he repeats, “I can’t stand anymore” (532). Assuming he has White privilege to change his role, John attempts to go beyond the script and stereotypes. John finally understands what Wiletta has been trying to convey the whole time: “They [Whites] can write what they want but we don’t have to do it (539). John realizes the nuances of agency when he does not have to depend on acceptance by the White man (Brown-Guillory “Black Women Playwrights” 230). But Job, John’s character, realizes the advantages of agency much sooner: “I got a letter from the President ’bout goin’ in the army, Turner [another Black slave] says when that happens, a man’s sposed to vote and things” (Childress 501). Part of the problem is that Blacks were not considered men or even a complete human being. Turner and Job realize change only comes about if people fight for acceptance. And more than anything John just wanted to be accepted (Armstrong 30).
Wiletta Mayer, the experienced Black actress, and her character Ruby know that Blacks and Whites can never be intellectual or professional equals. In speaking with Henry, Wiletta confesses her worries: “Henry, they stone us when we try to go to school” (Childress 510). There is obviously no way Blacks and Whites can be equal when education is not equal. This becomes obvious as Wiletta embodies the thwarted female artist (Jennings x). Realizing that racism crosses into theatre, Wiletta continues her dialogue: “Where the hell do I come in? Every damn body pushin’ me off the face of the earth! I want to be an actress […]” (510). Wiletta exposes historical racism of American theatre (Wilkerson 69). Black characters try to demand public and private equality in the arts, workplace and love (Jennings 18). However, the previous statement is a given for the White actors. Wiletta’s problems are not privy to importance even though the anti-lynching, anti-violence theme is the story of her life. Wiletta needs to justify her actions, reminiscent of “black” melodramas show Blacks as child like and helpless (Jennings 29). As Wiletta states, “Writer [sic] wants the damn white man to be the hero and me the villain” (Childress 533). And even when Manners gets the writer to change the roles for Wiletta, Wiletta Mayer, the experienced Black actress, and her character Ruby know that Blacks and Whites can never be intellectual or professional equals. In speaking with Henry, Wiletta confesses her worries: “Henry, they stone us when we try to go to school” (Childress 510). There is obviously no way Blacks and Whites can be equal when education is not equal. This becomes obvious as Wiletta embodies the thwarted female artist (Jennings x). Realizing that racism crosses into theatre, Wiletta continues her dialogue: “Where the hell do I come in? Every damn body pushin’ me off the face of the earth! I want to be an actress […]” (510). Wiletta exposes historical racism of American theatre (Wilkerson 69). Black characters try to demand public and private equality in the arts, workplace and love (Jennings 18). However, the previous statement is a given for the White actors.
Wiletta’s problems are not privy to importance even though the anti-lynching, anti-violence theme is the story of her life. Wiletta needs to justify her actions, reminiscent of “black” melodramas show Blacks as child like and helpless (Jennings 29). As Wiletta states, “Writer [sic] wants the damn white man to be the hero and me the villain” (Childress 533). And even when Manners gets the writer to change the roles for Wiletta, “it [is] still a mammy part” (533). Manners proclaims he has worked hard to make roles different. But Wiletta shares the same thoughts as James Baldwin. As said to Baldwin’s biographer Fern Eckman: “I don’t want to be fitted into this society…I would rather be dead” (Gates and McKay 1327). Baldwin’s statement and Wiletta’s feelings echo Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death.”
Sheldon, the experienced Black actor, and his character Sam realize Blacks will never have the same opportunities or advantages as Whites. Even though Judy has a degree in acting, she does not know the simplest of directions, yet Manners has no trouble helping correct Judy’s mistakes (Childress 497). But in Manner’s fury he drops a piece of paper and asks Wiletta to pick it up (497). If any of the Black cast would have made a mistake Manners would have no patience with him or her and write him or her off as stupid. However, when a White actress with an acting degree from Yale cannot master upstage from downstage, there just needs to be an adjustment. Even though Judy is the source of Manners’ anger, he seeks out the Mammy, Wiletta, to clean up his mess. Black actors are faced with the fact they are meant to perform, not give an opinion or truly act (Jennings 30). Sheldon was once paid “fifty dollars a week just to walk across the stage real slow” (Childress 531). Having a job is more important than having a self (Jennings 31). Sheldon realizes a lack of self when he states, “I ain’t gonna die, I can’t afford to do it” (Childress 518). As if Sheldon can cheat death due to monetary reasons, he realizes that because of his race and sex he is in debt beyond life expectancy. He is forced to play the double role of slave laborer and entertainer (Brown-Guillory “Images” 1). Even his role in Chaos in Belleville shows that Sheldon is not equal to the White land and slave owner Mr. Renard. Sheldon is upset that he is “the only man in the house and what [is he] doin’? Whittlin’ a doggone stick” as his son is being lynched (Childress 538). In the end, Sheldon reaches an epiphany that the White, supposedly non-racist, refuse to agree with: “The producer and the author ain’t gonna listen to [Wiletta], after all…they white same as Manners” (539). Like John, Sheldon realizes barriers for progress are often unseen and numerous.
Millie, a female Black actress, realizes race and gender give agency. While Judy believes people are the same, Millie, under her breath, claims that “People aren’t the same” (Childress 491). Childress creates several points of contention between Millie and Judy to prove Millie correct. When Manners is caught breathing down Judy’s neck, Manners recovers by saying, “You er…wear a beautiful dress in the third act and I wanted to see if you have nice shoulders” (493). While Manners’ statement is full of White patriarchal commentary, the more important note is that Millie asks, “I got nice shoulders. You got one of those dresses for me?” (493). No one responds to Millie but rather go back to the sketches. There are overt attempts to show that beauty does not matter, skin tone does. Every one pays attention to Judy, especially the men including John because despite her awkwardness, she is society’s epitome of beauty. Millie warns John that he is “too friendly with [Judy]” and he needs to be careful (507). Despite being almost jealous, Millie is still trying to protect John from forces he cannot understand. When Judy voices concerns about her role and Millie makes plain to Judy that she disapproves, Manners assuages Judy by saying, “who pays Millie any attention” (501). Millie must fight to be noticed because she is so often overlooked. The cast still writes off Millie’s assumptions when she makes clear “you [Sheldon and John] crawlin’ all over me to hand [Judy] coffee” (508). Despite Millie and Wiletta being described as beautiful Black women in stage directions, their skin color makes them undesirable.
Henry, the Irish doorman, is like the tragic mulatto in that he does not really fit with Whites or Blacks, making him a perfect synthesis. There is the hope that more White men can be like Henry. He remembers Wiletta’s performances, offers to get her coffee, and provides a “gentle treatment [Wiletta] seldom receives” (Childress 485). Henry is the symbol that “Labor competition between the Irish and Blacks was fierce in the domestic services” (Takaki 154). Any of the Black cast could easily be in Henry’s position. But it is better to employ Blacks as actors, to control their every move, rather than give them the freedom to come and go as they please. Henry is entrusted with money for purchases during his errands. He is separated from the Blacks for special treatment (Takaki 56). None of the Black cast would be given as much responsibility, as Bill O'Wray feels compelled to tell the story of “the colored minister and the stolen chicken” while at lunch with the cast (Childress 530). Henry is often put in compromising positions as he should be free to make choices since he is technically White, but must cater to all members of the cast as a servant. When Henry returns with the morning food order, he brings back Jelly doughnuts, like Sheldon requested and was turned down, instead of Danishes that Manners requested (502). In a blaze of indignation Manners yells, “I won’t eat it!” (502). Henry realizes his place as an other and takes full advantage of situations to get the upper hand. After Manners reveals his true feelings about race relations, Henry is pleased to give Manners “some nice Danish, cheese and prune” (540). While it seems Henry chooses to hear what he wants, he always listens to Wiletta (510), knows when she is upset (541) and provides inspiration. When Wiletta is at her lowest, Henry gives Wiletta the place and courage to be an actress: “Do it…do it. I’m the audience” (541); and when she is done reciting a Psalm Henry turns on the applause machine (542). Henry is willing to see that people are not that different. Everyone in the cast has emotions, hopes, regrets, feelings, and the dream of being better. Henry can be the ideal synthesis between White and Black arguments. But because Henry is an other, his voice will never be heard by the masses.
The true synthesis is simple: the characters must repeat what has always been done. The characters fall into roles that have always worked for them. In the case of Al Manners, he must eradicate the problem. There is the hint that Wiletta will be taken away from society by cops. Manners makes the issue clear: “Bronson does the writing, you do the acting, it’s that simple” (Childress 529). Sheldon follows Manners’ statement with “One race, the human race. I like that” (529). Manners performs the measure of calling the cops to make things seem content again, completely avoiding the problem. Childress believes there is a resistance to oppressed groups: “I fear your reaction to an unjust situation, so I must deny that it exists. I fear that advantages for you will threaten me” (Betsko and Koenig 71). Manners refuses to part from what has always worked for him. Millie (Petunia in Chaos) will always play flowers and Wiletta (Ruby in Chaos) will always play jewels (Childress 490). The cast of both plays must face the hypocrisy of appearing or hearing they are equals but behaving in ways that say otherwise (Wilkerson 69; Barlowe 472). Therefore the Black cast must do what has always been done “keep laughing to keep from crying” (“Trouble in Mind” 1; Barlowe 531).
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Last Updated: June 10, 2012