It is American in the late 1950s and Ben Carruthers is a young Negro jazz trumpeter. A light-skinned Negro showing up at a raucous party somewhere on the island of Manhattan. The party drags on and the takes the evening with it along with whatever sense of joy of life that Ben possessed before he showed up. Every new day brings a new opportunity for happiness for happiness, however, and the day following the party holds great promise for the trumpeter. He is hanging out with his buddies Tom and Dennis. Tom and Dennis are not Negroes, but young men with slightly lighter complexions than Ben. Slightly lighter, but undeniably Caucasian.
Hugh Hurd is Ben’s older brother. His complexion is darker than his younger sibling and his day brings word from his manager, Rupert Crosse, that he has gotten a gig singing in a nightclub in Philly. It’s not exactly 21 and then there’s the additional disappointment that Hugh will be expected to introduce the chorus girls in addition to singing. Complaining proves fruitless and Hugh is forced to cower and accept the terms and conditions of employment. Ben shows up and attempts to borrow money from Hugh without explaining why the loan is needed. Since Hugh needs what is likely a pretty lousy job in Philly to help keep Ben and their sister Lelia afloat, he makes a mad dash to catch the train while trying to convince Lelia to take a cab home.
Lelia bypasses the brotherly advice and instead takes a path home straight through Times Square where one guy attempts molestation but another steps in to defend her honor. She manages to make it home okay. Meanwhile, Rupert is on stage attempting to mold Hugh’s act into something deemed acceptable. When the show starts for real, however, the performance is deemed unacceptable and terminated.
David is Lelia’s boyfriend. She’s black, he’s white. Worse than merely a white guy dating a black girl in the 1950s for Lelia is that David is also something of a control freak. For instance, right now he’s trying to enforce control over Ben by intimating that he and his friends could reap big benefits from visiting some of the Big Apple’s more cultural sites. Ben and his buds laugh this suggestion off, but nevertheless wind up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dennis is enraptured by the sculpted statues as visceral evidence of the organic value of all art; Tom views every artist with something on display as a sell-out. David further exercises control by getting them to attend a haughty literary part that night where the main attraction is an argument that takes place over the subject of Existentialism.
More to the point, however, is another occurrence: David critiques a story Lelia wrote and she takes offense to the criticism. The story’s theme is about the inherent spirit of spontaneity that characterizes of all life and she attempts to drive this point home to David by kissing a man she barely knows: Tony Russell. The kiss sparks an intense fascination between the two and Lelia extends an invitation to Tony to join her and David in the park tomorrow. Whereupon she and Tony abruptly leave David behind to engage in heartfelt conversation about the meaning of life and how Lelia is increasingly getting the feeling that life is marching on without her. Eventually, they wind up in bed together, but even afterward Lelia’s reaction is pretty much the same: Tony is every bit the stranger he was when they first met.
Tony returns with Lelia to her apartment where they are caught in an embrace by the unexpected arrival of Hugh. Only after Lelia introduces Hugh as her brother does Tony realize that Lelia is not a white girl. He suddenly realizes he is late for an appointment. Lelia expresses her love for Tony while an angry Hugh invites Tony to vacate the premises.
When Ben later sees that Lelia is distressed, all he learns from Hugh is that it has something to do with race. A subject that would not interest Ben, according to Hugh. That night their apartment is home to a party hosted by Hugh, but both Ben and Lelia are acting belligerently morose. David shows up and apologizes for Tony and excusing himself by saying he never knew Tony was like that. Ben acts rudely to one of the female partygoers, Lelia is rude to a black friend of girlfriend Vicky all the underlying tension erupts when Hugh punches Ben for his behavior. Lelia screams in anger at Hugh, Ben exits the party and Hugh complains to Rupert about his lousy managerial skills.
Hugh tries to smooth things over with Ben the next morning while Vickie’s friend shows up to take Lelia to a dance. Lelia not only makes him wait for a couple of hours, but is continually rude to him while making him do so. Just as they are finally leaving for the party, Tony shows up, but Lelia merely gives him the bill chill and pushes on past. Tony instead tries to convince her brothers that he has learned there really is no difference between blacks and whites. Ben says he will relay this epiphany to Lelia, but merely joins Hugh in laughter once Tony leaves the apartment.
At the party, Lelia finally gives up being a jerk and dances with Davey, Vickie’s friend, after he tells her he likes her. Hugh is late for a meeting with Rupert concerning another job away from New York and when he finally catches up, Rupert asserts that Hugh is simply too difficult to continue working with. An argument ensues and ends with Hugh calling Rupert great at his job and asking only that he start to believe in his client a little more. And, finally, Ben and his buddies manage to get into a scuffle with another group of guys which prompts Ben to realize he is facing a future of merely drifting his way through life. Saying goodnight to the guys, Ben steps out onto a busy intersection, though it remains less than clear which direction he is headed.