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Defining the Heroic: Characterization in Alice Childress'

Trouble in Mind

Lynn Hanson
FrancisMarion University

In her drive to portray the reciprocal influences of America's


diversity in ethnicity, gender, class, and age, playwright Alice
Childress defies and conflates the taxonomic characterizations that
scholarly works try to impose on her characters, works such as
Elizabeth Brown's Six Female Black Playwrights: Images of Blacks
in Plays and Patricia Sweeney's Women in Southern Literature.
These critical works and others do not accurately account for the
heroines in Childress' plays who cross boundaries of classification
to repeat, reverse, and conflate stereotypical images of young and
old women, blacks and whites. In Trouble In Mind, 1Childress
achieves her complex characterizations through the meta dramatic
device of the play within a play, presenting actors of the 1950s
Broadway theatre who must portray stock figures in an Old South
drama. Ironically, the conflation of elements that creates the con-
flict in Childress' dramas also provides the resolution.
The underlying tension that drives the action of Trouble in
Mind is the tension between group unity and individual integrity.
Although racial strife is the most obvious conflict, Childress' play
develops far more than a simple stratified black-against-white
motif, realistically portraying the complexities of a diverse society.
Alliances form and break within the groups of men and women,
young and old, educated and uneducated as characters resist
stereotyping based on any schema.
In the primary plot line of Trouble in Mind, a group of black
and white actors are rehearsing for a Broadway play, entitled
Chaos in Belleville. Al Manners, the director, claims that Chaos is
a progressive play designed to promote the cause of equal civil
rights. But when rehearsal begins, the actors quickly see that the
script relies heavily on the same, tired, polarized roles they've
played before: in particular, submissive, weak, or ignorant actions
for blacks and smug, self-righteous, leading roles for whites.
In an effort to establish unity among the African American

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actors before their rehearsal begins, Wiletta coaches John on how of her children, often sacrificing herself to prepare them to live in a
to get along in the white man's theatre. Sheldon, another older violent and racist world [She is] a woman faced with harsh
black actor, agrees with Wiletta and claims her methods are not responsibilities, which she accepts and carries out to the fullest of
"Tommin'" but common sense. Additionally, both Wiletta and her powers (122). Brown's upholder of racial pride is a woman
Millie warn John against close association with Judy, the only who "willingly go[es] beyond 'self' and family to improv[e] life for
white female in the cast. Although Wiletta and Millie compete [African-Americans]" (142). Brown's single negative image is the
with one another for the most youthful appearance, they form a "black woman as destroyer of racial pride" (106).
coalition of two black women who will not accept Judy because Although Brown cites Alice Childress' character Wiletta Mayer
she is young and white. In the cast's initial meeting, Judy and as an example of the upholder of racial pride, she is, however, an
John are disadvantaged by their lack of experience, but their aca- amalgam of all three of Brown's positive images. As an evolving
demic degrees gain them acceptance with the white actors without black woman, Wiletta seeks to advance her own career and oppor-
hard-won experience. But when Sheldon objects that John's rela- tunities on the stage. As a voice for the black matriarch, she seeks
tionships are none of Millie's business, the unity of the group is to replace the stereotype of the simple, subservient mammy with
broken. John resists their advice, makes friends with Judy, and the intelligence and loyalty of black mothers who struggle to pro-
aligns himself quickly with Al Manners, the white director of the tect their children in a racist world (168-169). As upholder of her
play, Chaos in Belleville.Although John is temporarily drawn to race, she protests the characterizations and actions of the play
the power base of whites, their false unity is exposedby internal within the play, points out the illogic, and loudly objects "I'm sick
bickering. This opening scene exemplifies the tensions Childress of people signifyin' we got no sense" (171).
manipulates between whites and blacks, men and women, individ- Willetta's complexity supports Savas Patsalidis' argument in
uals and groups. "The (Im)possibilities of the (black) Female Self," that Childress
The resulting chaos in the rehearsal hall parallels the conflict of and other playwrights of the second wave of feminism 2supply
the play within the play and challengesthe social hierarchy of the American theatre "with unique images of Black women and their
Broadway environment. In fact, eachmemberof the company struggle for survival and re-definition" (303). Self-definition is
comesunder scrutiny as they repeat Old South roles, reverse them, precisely Willeta's goal.
swap them, and sometimes merge them. In doing so, Childress' Because Childress develops the device of the play within a play
complex characters defy classification. and Wiletta embodies a role in both, her character is complexly
Yet scholars-interested in classifying imagesin literature- layered with the stereotype she is assigned to play in Chaos and
have tried. For example, in Elizabeth Brown's scholarly work her efforts to cast it off in Trouble. For example, Wiletta adopts a
(1980) on African-American characters in plays by African- "Jemima" persona in her interactions with Al Manners. She feigns
American playwrights, she defines four representations of black worry for his unhealthy stress levels, saying, "Go on! Go 'way!
womanhood: the "evolving black woman" is a "survivor" who, Ain't speakin' to you! He [Manners] won't eat, he won't sleep, he's
despite vulnerabilities, unreciprocated love, or "a series of trials just terrible! I'm mad with you" (143). In these moments, Wiletta
and errors, realizesher potential as a black woman"and goeson plays concerned black mammy to Manners' "master" and she
"with the business of living." She is resilient, "self-respecting, self- plays matriarchal advisor to the stage novice John. In addition,
sufficient, [and] assertive" (108-109) as her focus becomes "taking when Manners seeks her opinion on the word "darkie" in the
care of herself" (121). Cut from the same cloth, but with a differ- script of Chaos she answers, "Lord, have mercy, don't ask me
ent impetus and goal, Brown's black matriarch is concerned with 'cause I don't know..."', which is a line she resents speaking as
"taking care of her family's needs" (121). She is fiercelyprotective Ruby. But her awareness of her inadvertent slip is immediate.
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According to Childress' stage directions, Wiletta "stops short" and fyin' and the. . . antagonist. . . I never studied that, so you
is "disturbed that she's repeating the exact line the author indicat- don't want to hear me (163)
ed" for Ruby in Chaos (147). Still later, she improvises actions for But as a pupil, Wiletta has surpassed the "master," identifying the
Ruby that radically change the script of the play. inconsistencies in his theories and attempting to rectify and move
Because of her rebellion, scholar Patricia Sweeney places beyond them. Like Elizabeth Brown's "evolving black woman"
Wiletta-and other Childress heroines-in a category with "freed and "upholder of the race," she will relentlessly continue her
black women," an unsatisfactory classification that defines any efforts until she and Manners can see the same truth.
African American female character by her relation to slavery, even Nevertheless, Wiletta's rebellion during rehearsal disenfranchis-
characters like Wiletta, whose setting is almost a century after es her, moving her outside any of the available systems of alliance.
Emancipation (she is middle-aged in 1957). Although Sweeney's Because the criteria for unity among each group (black and white,
taxonomy reflects the stereotypes within southern literature and men and women, young and old, educated and uneducated) is con-
the surviving separatism of the 1980s, more recent scholarship tinually forming and disintegrating, Wiletta is ostracized from
argues that segregated classifications can serve a better purpose, them all.
that is, to acknowledge the unique experiences of minorities and Like Wiletta, Judy Sears suffers a similar dilemma. The only
allow African-American women to locate their identities in models white female in Trouble in Mind, she plays Carrie in Chaos in
of themselves, not in socially-accepted images of white women. As Belleville. Her character is a young, white woman of privilege,
Elsa Barkley Brown has written, "Being a woman is...not pampered by the servants who shelter her from the harsh realities
extractable from the context in which one is a woman-[from] of racial tension and violence. Judy, like Carrie, pretends to be
race, class, time, and place" (300). worldly and liberal, but she is inexperienced and naive, a novice in
Unlike earlier scholars, such as Mary Louise Anderson and dealing with forces she knows little or nothing about. As the
Trudier Harris, 3who identify the black matriarch as a one-dimen- female lead in Chaos, she is an amalgam of characteristics assigned
sional character, Elizabeth Brown asserts that many literary charac- to the Belle and Lady in Sweeney's catalog of Southern characters.
terizations-such as those found in Childress' work-rescue these Like Sweeney's Belle, she is "beautiful, mannered, flirtatious, and
African American women from reductions to mere types (123- often shallow," but in the absence of a mother in the play within
124). Brown concurs with Glenda Dickerson who proposes in her the play, she becomes the "idealized" Lady, "chaste, compassion-
article, "A Womanist Attitude in African-American Theatre," that ate, caring, and often.. .in charge of a large household of blacks
the archetypes for African-American women must come from the and whites" (ix). Although Judy disapproves of her character's
stories.. .of the common people that reflect "the Black experience superior behavior and teary-eyed sentimentality, her similarity to
in America" (180). Carrie prompts Wiletta and Millie to rebuff her friendliness. Yet
Ultimately, Wiletta's experience includes dropping the in her need for unity with the other women in the cast, Judy
"Jemima" facade (167) and asserting the truth she really believes- breaks her role as Carrie and accidentally joins in the black
a truth Manners has asked for in her performance but doesn't real- women's "chorus" in Chaos as they exclaim and moan "back-up"
ly want. When she requests time to discuss her character's actions, to Sam's prayer (160). When Manners and Bill convey swift disap-
Manners puts her off by saying "Darling, don't think. You're proval for her inadvertent crossover, they mirror Millie and
great until you start thinking Don't tell it, you're beautiful" Wiletta's repeated rejections of Judy throughout Act I. So Judy
(157). Later she confronts Manners for his condescension: alters the sincerity with which she plays the role of Carrie and
You don't ever listen to me. You hear the others but not me. shifts to a "reserved kindness, rather than real involvement" (160),
And it's 'cause of the school. 'Cause they know about justi manifesting the smugness she dislikes in her character but needs to
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adopt to avoid the disapproval of her peers. As the tensions But when individual characters rebel against the constraints of lim-
mount, her functions in both plays become harder to negotiate, ited roles and behaviors, conflict erupts anew.
just as they are for Wiletta. For example, Wiletta's position among the various factions
The patterns that develop among the women are also repeated alters as the other members of the cast grow weary of her objec-
in the men. At the beginning of Act II, the white males on stage tions to the script and simply want to get on with rehearsal. The
present the picture of unity as Bill O'Wray delivers Renard's speech pressure to conform is greatest when Wiletta's "own" people in the
on moderation (which is meaningless drivel). But conflict erupts theatre, like Job's "own" people in Chaos, "won't help [her]"
when Manners chastises Bill for avoiding the black cast members (169). After all, they need their jobs.
at lunch. Manners also verbally attacks Eddie and blames him for Nevertheless, Wiletta's loyalty to self and race prompt her to
everything from technical accidents to disrupting negotiations with play her role as Ruby with realistic integrity, as a thinking, feeling,
his ex-wife. experienced woman who fears for her son's life. As Ruby, she
Ironically, the characters' words and deeds often reinforce the struggles to pull Job off his knees to escape the white mob, and
prevalent stereotypes they resist. For example, Manners is like complains, "The writer wants the damn white man to be the
Renard, the white landowner in Chaos, believing he plays a role of hero-and I'm the villain" (169). In this moment, she conflates her
beneficence, when in fact he lives out the unthinking insensitivity roles in the two plays, an overlay that also conflates the plotlines
of a privileged person in power. He fancies himself a progressive of Trouble in Mind and Chaos.
director willing to take unconventional risks for the sake of teach- The crux of the play occurs in the final scene of Trouble in
ing the ills of racism, but he repeats the common behaviors of the Mind, when Wiletta begins to recite the 133 Psalm, a grand pas-
self-superior, self-congratulatory white liberal who merely masks sage from the Bible that encapsulates the theme of the play:
his racism with rhetoric. And he responds just as characteristically "Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together
when his omniscience is questioned and threatened. He tyrannizes in unity." She has longed for her grand moment on the stage, and
the powerless stage manager and Henry the Irish doorman for she gets it. But her witness is an audience of one, a has-been door-
offenses as small as buying jelly doughnuts instead of Danish. man who remembers her singing in Brownskin Melody.4
In addition, John, the only African American actor with a col- Nevertheless, in this moment, she ~ grand, doing justice to the
lege education, resists advice from the experienced Sheldon. passage, achieving her personal goal-at least on one level-to
According to Elizabeth Brown's taxonomy (77-78), John Nevins is stand forth at her best in the theater. But she has also stood forth
the "black youth in search of his manhood," but he also displays at her best in her attempts to persuade Manners to work for hon-
symptoms of the "black assimilationist," another contemporary est portrayals of African-Americans on stage.
type Brown defines (79-87). In John's efforts to distance himself As Wiletta ends the Bible passage about unity, Henry turns on
from the older black actors, he falls into the very role he sought to the applause machine, a diegetical action that signals the live audi-
avoid. He becomes the inadvertent "Tom" that he despises in ence of Trouble in Mind to applaud as well. As they do, the virtu-
Sheldon, laughing at Manners' jokes, adopting his ideology, and al action of the play is superimposed on the actual reality of the
appropriating his "manners." In fact, through most of the play, theatre, just as the virtual reality of Chaos in Belleville has been
John is co-opted into the league of whites. superimposed on the virtual reality of Trouble in Mind. In doing
The tension between group unity and individual integrity so, Childress makes it possible for audience members to internalize
increases as characters struggle to alter the stereotypes. Unity the tensions of the play, particularly those dealing with stereotypes.
occurs as long as each character behaves according to the pre- In an interview almost one year before her death in 1994,
scribed stratifications of race, gender, age, education, and position. Childress relates an experience in which she, like Wiletta, found
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her voice compromised by the theatre. In the first production of In Trouble in Mind, as in other plays, Childress realistically por-
Trouble in Mind at Greenwich Mews (1955), the producers want- trays the complex situational tensions of our diverse culture, artic-
ed her to rewrite the ending "to show a positive image to the pub- ulating the unspeakable complexities of bitter tensions, made more
lic of blacks and whites working together" (Playwright's Art 53). complex by the layers of time, tradition, and inversion. Through
In the revised ending, all the actors, black and white, "came the juxtaposition of the characters' roles in the plays Chaos and
together and walked out on the show" en masse (Childress 52). Trouble, Childress repeats established patterns, breaks them,
Although Childress felt compelled to compromise at the time, reverses them, and merges the various type classifications into
like her character Wiletta, she ultimately rejected the producers' characters that personify the potential for development and
ending because, as she said, it wasn't believable. Childress change. By conflating the social roles of young and old, black and
explains: "Producers want things solved" (Playwright's Art 61). white, male and female, educated and uneducated, Childress' hero-
They want shows that try to make "a positive, balanced state- ines defy strict categorization.
ment" that "'we're getting along'" (Playwright's Art 64). But "this For Childress, tossing characters into the mix-and leaving
is the problem. Society is getting more and more divided because them there-is as much resolution as realism allows. Her heroine
we lie about the situation" (64). She believes drama should show is a common woman who embodies old and new, past and present,
"the controversy of life, the contradictions in history" tradition and innovation; and who confronts cultural obstacles to
(Playwright's Art 67) and "go right to the root of the subject" her autonomy and identity. The tensions among the cast concern-
(Playwright's Art 64). ing race, class, gender, age, and education remain unresolved.
Interestingly, reviewers criticized the "clap-trap" ending Unlike Manners' effort in producing Chaos in Belleville, Childress'
(Playwright's Art 52) and Childress changed it back to the original play does not pretend to solve complex problems simply by exist-
for publication in 1971 and again for a production in London ing. Trouble in Mind depicts the conflicts compassionately, while
(1992) with one difference: Al Manners, the director of Chaos, revealing the raw ugliness behind stereotyped facades, and ends
witnesses Wiletta's final speech about the rightness of unity. realistically, not with an answer to unite all groups, but with one
However, the end of the play does not indicate whether Wiletta individual's solid hope.
will persuade Manners to change the script. The conflicts go unre-
solved within the white power structure of American theatre, the Notes
arena that symbolizes Wiletta's world.
This open ending is a significant feature of Childress' realism. 1 Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award in 1955 as the best orig-
Scholar Patricia Schroeder argues that despite the anti-realism sen- inal off-Broadwayplay of the year. All referencesto the text are to
timents of many feminist theorists, Alice Childress uses her realistic Childress' script published in Black Theatre.
plays as "agent[s] of social change" (333), a purpose that stands as
20ther playwrights include Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake
the defining characteristic of materialist feminism. In her defense Shange,and Adrienne Kennedy.
of Childress' technique in Wine in the Wilderness, Schroeder
asserts, "the fact that the play exemplifies well-crafted realism does 3 Other scholars who have analyzed the perpetual stereotyping
not diminish the materialist-feminist nature of the work or detract of black characters include Sterling Brown, Donald Bogle,Jeanne-
from its political message" (333-334) about the impact of inter- Marie Miller,and Michele Wallace.
secting "social, racial, and gender roles" (326). In her own
defense, Childress explains, "I write what I see, hear, and feel. I 4 The published text of Trouble in Mind in Lindsay Patterson's
think this is the only realism some fear" (Playwright's Art 67). Black Theatre (1971) has Childress' original ending in which only
Henry the doorman sees her closing recitation. The revision in
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which Manners also witnesses Wiletta's recitation was written Journal 40.2 (1988), 178-187.
for the London production in October 1992. Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants in Black American
Literature. Philadelphia:TempleUniversityPress, 1982.
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