Act I opens up with Reverend Meridian Henry coaching the Negro students through their lines. They are interrupted by Parnell Jones who brings them the news that Lyle Britten will be arrested for the murder of Richard Henry. When he leaves to go tell Britten about his future arrest, the students talk amongst themselves about the struggles they face as Black people. The scene shifts to Lyle and his wife Jo Britten in their store. His wife brings up the death of Richard, fearful that her husband may go to jail because of a past transgression he had with another Black man who died as a result of the confrontation. Lyle defends himself by claiming self-defense. When Parnell Jones arrives, Lyle assures both of them not to worry. The scene shifts into a flashback with Richard and his grandmother, Mother Henry. He confronts her about the death of his mother whom he believes was pushed down the stairs, though Mother Henry claims she fell down by accident. Richard swears that he will protect himself from the white man at all costs, showing her a gun. Before she leaves, his grandmother pleads with him to get rid of it. Soon after, the Negro students, Pete and Juanita, arrive to take Richard out to Pete D’s bar. While they’re dancing, Richard confides in Juanita about his time up North and how he became a junkie. Lyle arrives on the scene and bumps into Juanita, interrupting her dance with Richard. The two share words before Lyle leaves. Later Richard goes to talk to his father, the reverend, about taking the nonviolent route, handing over his gun. Here the flashback ends and the scene opens with Parnell returning to the church to reassure Reverend Meridian Henry that Lyle will be taken to court; however, he also makes sure to say that the storeowner will not be convicted. Parnell tells the reverend to just let the matter go. The scene ends as he departs.
Act II opens with Jo Britten and the white townspeople in her home. They discuss how frightened they have become of the Black townspeople lately. Soon Parnell Jones arrives and gets into a debate over his paper and his place in the Black community with the white men. Lyle arrives some time later and the others continue to tease Parnell as he proposes to put Black people in the jury at Lyle’s trial. The white townspeople soon leave with only the Brittens and Parnell in the house.
Lyle leaves to take a shower and when they are alone, Jo confronts Parnell about her husband sleeping with Willa Mae, the wife of Old Bill — the Black man Lyle killed. She asks Parnell if he had ever loved a Black woman. When he says yes, Jo says that it is possible that Lyle had loved Willa Mae and killed her husband out of spite. She continues, saying that if that is possible then it is possible that he killed Richard. Lyle returns with his son and passes him to Jo. The scene changes to Lyle and Parnell in the store talking about Lyle’s relationship with Willa Mae. They also discuss the first time Lyle met Richard. Again, Lyle denies killing him. Jo arrives with their son, ending the discussion.
Another flashback occurs, showing Richard and Lorenzo going to the Brittens’ store. Richard humiliates Lyle in front of his wife before he runs off with Lorenzo. The flashback ends, going back to Parnell and Lyle talking in the store. Lyle slips up and describes how Richard’s body was left face down in high weeds. When Parnell asks how he knew that, Lyle claims to have read it in the newspaper. Parnell leaves soon after to go to Richard’s funeral, ending the second act.
Act III opens up with Lyle’s trial. It has been two months since Richard’s death. A number of people are called up to take the stand as witnesses regarding Richard’s character. Jo lies about Richard attempting to sexually assault her in the store. Juanita, Lorenzo, Mother Henry, the Reverend and Parnell Jones defend Richard’s character when called up. Papa D, the owner of the bar, takes the stand and tells the court that he witnessed Richard leave with Lyle on a night when he was closing up the bar. A brief flashback shows Lyle threatening to kill Papa D if he were to tell people Lyle didn’t kill Old Bill in self-defense. The court rules in Lyle’s favor. Another flashback shows Lyle killing an unarmed, nonviolent Richard before disposing his body in the high weeds. The act ends with Lyle telling Reverend Meridian Henry that he will never apologize for the death of Richard.
"Mister Charlie" is a phrase used by African Americans that refers to the white man.