Mimicry of Social Roles in Alice Childress’ "Trouble in Mind"
A unique relationship arises between the characters in Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind. A mini-plantation is formed from the cast. Basically, all the characters need one other because they benefit from one another. Ironically, the characters all come to play roles that mimic the past according to race and gender. The cast, director, and assistants rise and fall together but ultimately need each other to keep going.
Al Manners plays the master, owner, and overseer. As master, Manners can ask for the complete trust of his cast (496). When Manners is fed up with his entire cast offering suggestions, he pulls in the reins and says, “I am in charge and I’ll thank you to remember it. I’ve been much too lax, too informal. Well, it doesn’t work” (527). As the head of operations, Manners must be absolutely sure his position is not compromised. Manners is like the White Judge in Souls of Black Folks who says, “Now I like the colored people […] but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can expect to be the equal of white men,” because he has control over Black people’s actions (Du Bois 729). He must allow the cast to think no one else can do his job. Manners must keep the cast around for fear of laziness or becoming a burden to society (Takaki 112). Sheldon always reminds the cast that Manners does not have to employ them and at any time Manners can be in Hollywood (Childress 526). When Manners cannot understand the source of power and inspiration in Wiletta, he tells her, “I demand that you know what you’re doing and why, at all times. I will accept nothing less” (506). He also asks Wiletta to not think because she is “great until [she] start[s] thinking” (514). Manners does not realize how someone he has kept employed can change: “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never given me any trouble” (533). Like an owner of an animal, Manners does not expect any of his cast to bite the hand that feeds them.
Eddie Fenton, the White production assistant, acts as the overseer of the cast. He runs interference when needed and acts as a communication junction between the director to the cast. He says what Manners should say but cannot for fear of losing respect and status (Childress 514; 516). When Millie touches on the subject of having a wardrobe equal to Judy’s, Eddie directs the cast’s attention back to the sketches they are viewing (494). But Eddie is not equal to Manners. At times Manners must give orders to Eddie just like the cast: “I don’t expect you to have ideas! Only common sense” (502). Eddie receives this verbal punishment because Manners’ wife called the theatre looking for Manners and knew he was already there. Acting as the absent mistress, Manners’ ex-wife still has to let people know she is not out of the loop. Eddie also fills in for absent cast members having to read the part of Mr. Renard for Bill O'Wray (498). But he also is responsible for the flow of rehearsals, giving stage directions and queues (500). His position of power is constantly called into question by being at the beck and call of Manners or the situation at hand.
Bill O’Wray is the racist. He quotes Hitler who said, “One should guard against believing great masses to be more stupid than they actually are!” (Childress 512). Bill fears what Ronald Takaki calls the “giddy multitude” (51). The giddy multitude are masses of people who have been the downtrodden that catch a glimpse of freedom and may become unruly. Occasionally Bill tries to smooth over situations by seeming sympathetic to the concerns of the Black cast (535). However, underneath his façade he is a hypocrite, sexist, and racist. Bill claims, “There’s not a prejudiced bone in [his] body” after he refuses to eat lunch and mingle with the Black cast (514). O’Wray, like Manners, often cannot comprehend the underlying issues with his thoughts or behavior. And then Bill feels like the victim: “Every time I open my mouth somebody is telling me don’t say this or that…Millie doesn’t want to be called ‘gal’…I call all women ‘gal’” (514). Bill does not learn from the first situation as he goes on to call Millie “honey child” and claims he was just “Trying to be friendly” (526). Even after Bill tells the joke about the preacher and the stolen chicken he feels no remorse: “I said I was sorry, but for what…I’ll never know (530). Bill, like Manners, attempts to not be racist, but his actions prove otherwise.
Henry functions as the household indentured servant. His main task is to answer the door and run errands (484). Unlike the Black characters, Henry does not have to be dominated but can be absorbed into White society (Takaki 161). Douglass notes that the Irish would soon find that taking Black jobs means they take on degradation (Takaki 139). Henry, for the most part, takes pride in his position. But he is never at the forefront of the stage. Henry’s father “was in vaudeville…doin’ the softshoe and tippin’ his hat to the ladies” (Childress 541). After one generation of the Irish being on American soil, Henry is down to doing lighting and errands for others. Henry is proud that he is seventy-eight and most people cannot guess his age (485). He thinks he looks good for his age, but all he has to show for his years of work is deafness and being bossed around.
Wiletta Mayer plays the Mammy role. The first thing Wiletta does when John arrives is give him a new education (487-8). She must teach John how to survive in theatre. Wiletta knows everything that “the man” expects. When Manners asks Wiletta what she thought when she sang a song, she states, “I thought that’s what you wanted” (506). Manners thinks he wants to hear that Wiletta pulled her power out of her soul and the song is the result of natural talent. But Manners realizes that Wiletta was right all along: she knows exactly what Manners wants and expects (507). Wiletta falls into the Mammy role even when she is herself. When Manners actually asks for Wiletta’s opinion about the word “darkies,” Wiletta does as Ruby does in the
script and responds, “Lord, have mercy, don’t ask me ’cause I don’t know…” (500). Realizing she has become a product of stereotypes, Wiletta decides there needs to be a change. Wiletta breaks from being a conformist to an individualist and tells Manners that he is prejudiced (Childress 536). Millie is upset that Wiletta has not told her plans to everyone (538). Like Harriet Jacobs, Wiletta realizes there are times when people need to do the unexpected when least expected to make a statement. Amazingly, like most of Childress’ characters, Wiletta survives “whole, not as fragmented, irreparably wounded, delicate, caustic” (Brown-Guillory “Images” 237).
Millie Davis is much like the mulatto and Jemima that does not fit anywhere. Although Millie is light skinned, in reality she is not close to being mulatto. Millie is closest to being what Sheldon calls her, a “Jemima” (Childress 508). However, Millie is eye-candy for both Manners and Bill. When Manners does pay attention to Millie, he only notices beauty: “You look gorgeous. This gal has such a flair for clothes. How do you do it?” (495). Acting like Millie has found out something Judy has not, Manners realizes he has crossed a dangerous line. In showing a bit too much attention to Millie, he immediately talks about Ted Bronson. In act two of the play, Judy is described as “dressed a little older than Act One, her hair is set with more precision. She is reaching for a sophistication that can never go deeper than the surface” (517). Judy and Millie seem to be in competition with one another. Yet, Judy will never win in true beauty because Millie possesses inner beauty that cannot be denied. Millie just wishes people could see her for what she truly is. She hopes for a lot of things: “to wear some decent clothes sometime. Only chance I get to dress up is offstage. I’ll wear them baggy cotton dresses but damn if I’ll wear another bandanna” (490). Basically she wants to be something other than the stereotypical Aunt Jemima. Millie is so upset by her portrayal on stage that she “wouldn’t even tell [her] relatives. All [she] did was shout ‘Lord, have mercy!’ for almost two hours every night” (490). Like the mulatto, Manners does not want to see Millie as a human being. Millie can be chattel or a sex symbol but not the real life result of race relations. Millie needs to be ignored and demeaned like miscegenation.
John Nevins is the Black man that sells his soul to be White. John refuses to be like Millie, Sheldon, and Wiletta. When he finds out he and Wiletta come from the same town he seems appalled (Childress 486). John is ready to forget his past and humble beginnings but finds that it may come back to haunt him. Before the end of the first rehearsal, John adopts “a typical MANNERS gesture” (523). John finds any way to part from the likes of his Black counterparts. He flaunts his education whenever possible and always tries to get on Manners’ good side (523). Just when John thinks he has blended in with White society, Millie brings him back to reality: “Didn’t you hear [Judy] say [her parents] expect something terrible to happen to her? Well, you’re one of the terrible things they have in mind!” (508). John can act as White as he wants but he is still Black on the outside. Nevertheless, John still feels better than the Black cast as he enters rehearsal “more towards the heady heights of opportunism” (517). No one makes John’s race more apparent than Manners when he tells Wiletta not to compare John to his son (537). When his own teacher is revealed as a racist, John reaches an epiphany: “I feel like a fool” (537). John feels that one moment, called a “Nigger Moment” by Lindsay Patterson, that he can never be the same as Whites: “that specific moment when a black discovers he is a ‘nigger’ and his mentality shifts gears and begins that long, uphill climb to bring psychological order out of chaos” (Brown-Guillory “Images” 234). And, like Toledo in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, John “done sold [himself] to the white man in order to be like him” (Harrison 1). John is also just like John Jones from Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk. Whites like John but agree school will spoil him (723). John feels the “Veil” that lay between him and the white world (725). And he finally says to himself, “John Jones, you’re a natural-born fool” (726).
Sheldon Forrester in undeniably an Uncle Tom. As Uncle Tom “is a term of reproach for a subservient Black person who tolerates discrimination,” Millie labels Sheldon accurately (Hirsch 144). After Millie proves Sheldon lives to serve Whites, she calls him a “Damn Tom” (508). Sheldon lacks backbone whenever he is confronted by Manners:
SHELDON: Thassa mistake, Mr. Manners. She can’t be alone if me and Millie is there with her.
MANNERS: Don’t interrupt!
SHELDON: Sorry. (519)
Even though Sheldon is right, he backs down immediately and assumes the role of Sam. But Sheldon still acts like the faithful slave when Manners needs to prove a point. When Manners says he believes in one race, Sheldon follows with “Let’s stop segregatin’ ourselves” (526). If Manners makes a command, Sheldon is ready to make sure the cast carries it out: “[Manners] say keep [John] on his knees” (532). When Wiletta becomes an individual and asserts her rights, Sheldon is right behind her to say, “Hush up, before the man hears you” (539). Sheldon knows White men hold the cards because: “Last thing [Sheldon] was in, the folks fought and argued so, the man said he’d never do a colored show again…and he didn’t!” (Childress 491). But Sheldon will be the first one to say that Manners likes him best even without an education: “He listen to me, and I ain’t had it” (525). Sheldon is too old to fight for change but realizes change needs to happen.
Quick Facts About Alice Childress
- African-American playwright
- Associated with the Harlem Renaissance
- Author of several young adult novels
Judy Sears is the progressive thinking abolitionist. Judy is the one ray of hope for starting a change. This is why Judy is given the role of Carrie, because she “Fights her father ’bout the way he’s treatin’ us” (Childress 490). Unlike Bill O'Wray, Judy willingly eats with the Black cast and tries to include everyone. She wants everyone from the cast to come to her house in Bridgeport and “have a glorious day” (503). Judy notices “Everyone’s a stranger and I’m the strangest of all” (530). But she wonders why “colored people don’t go out and kill somebody, […] really do it…bloody murder” (504). Judy is naïve and oblivious to the world of Blacks. However, she has a kind heart and good intentions. At least Judy is a start towards change.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. “Images of Blacks in Plays by Black Women.” Phylon. 47. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1986): 230-237. Jstor. Web. 29 July 2005.
Childress, Alice. “Trouble in Mind.” Plays by American Women 1930-1960. Ed. Judith E. Barlowe. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1994: 469-542. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of the Coming of John” from The Souls of Black Folk. The Norton Anthology: African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997: 722-732. Print.
Harrison, Paul Carter. “The Crisis of Black Theatre Identity.” African American Review. 31 (1997). 2005 Questia Media America Inc. Web. 30 July 2005.
Hirsh, E.D., Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.: 2002. Print
Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993. Print.
© 2012 Stephanie Bradberry