Mattie Michael, an ebony-skinned woman, is in her early 50s when she comes to live on Brewster Place. Her home town is Rock Vale, Tennessee, where she lived with her mother and father. Her peaceful life was interrupted when an encounter with local sexual predator Butch Fuller left her pregnant. Mattie's overly protective father nearly beat her to death when she would not reveal the identity of the man responsible. Turned out of her home, she became a single mother, made a good home for her son, Basil, but eventually ended up on dead-end Brewster Place. The course of Mattie's life is shaped by abuse and betrayal by three generations of men: Butch Fuller, who seduces her; her father, who beats and disowns her; and her son, who betrays her trust and costs her the only home she will ever own. Also shaping her life are sisterly love and the friendship of women. Etta Mae Johnson, a childhood friend, first gives Mattie shelter after she leaves home. Motherly Eva Turner provides Mattie with the house in North Carolina that she will call home for 30 years. Mattie's dream is to build her new world around her son. It's a dream of selfless motherhood that defines her life as a woman. The dream is broken—"deferred"—when Basil selfishly betrays her, disappears, and leaves her destitute.
Etta Mae Johnson
Etta is a "short, chestnut woman" in her early 50s. She is Mattie Michael's childhood friend from Tennessee, but her journey to Brewster Place is quite different from Mattie's. Etta's nickname, "Tut," was earned in those early years in Rock Vale. It describes a confident walk—proud as the wife of King Tut—that she never loses. Rebellious by nature, she refuses to play by the rules set up by white society in the segregated South. Breaking free around the age of 17, she travels north, looking to achieve her dreams, but finds most avenues of pursuit closed to her as a black woman. Disillusioned, she turns to men, using her looks and charm to hook up with "any promising black star" who will keep her for a time, until the relationship burns out. Her unconventional, free-wheeling lifestyle is reflected in the blues music she loves. Unlike Mattie, Etta has no interest in motherhood or even marriage until she comes to Brewster Place. Then at a church meeting, she meets the Reverend Woods, and a new dream takes shape, in which she is the respectable wife of a preacher. That dream is short-lived. The preacher turns out to be no better, and possibly worse, than the other men in Etta's life. Just when dreams of love and acceptance on her own terms seem most out of reach, she realizes that she has found them in Mattie's sisterly love.
Kiswana Browne is a recent arrival in Brewster Place. Seen through Cora Lee's eyes, she is described as a "tall, pretty young girl with beaded hair." Kiswana's real name is Melanie, and she comes from a middle-class black family living in up-scale Linden Hills. While in college, she is drawn to the African American students' revolutionary quest for social and economic equality and justice. Joining the fight, she drops out of school, changes her name to the more African-sounding "Kiswana," and moves to Brewster Place, to live among the poor black people she hopes to help. Kiswana is a dreamer with a strong sense of ethnic identity. She truly wants to help her people, but is ignorant of the complex realities that have created their dead-end lives. Her well-meaning, but vague, plans turn more productive after her mother sternly reminds her of her own proud family lineage. Kiswana begins to understand that her heritage is something to build upon, not dismiss; that meeting the world on its terms and working within the system is not a rejection of core values, but rather key to reaching her goals. The location of Kiswana's sixth floor apartment provides a metaphor for these goals and her dreams. This location allows her to see over the neighborhood's dead-end wall, past the physical barrier to a better place. Similarly she can envision possibilities beyond the social and economic barriers of Brewster Place and imagine ways for improving the lives of its residents.
Lucielia Louise Turner
Lucielia Louise—Ciel—Turner is the granddaughter of Eva Turner, the elderly woman who gives Mattie a place to live when Basil is just a baby. Ciel and Basil are close in age and grow up together until Eva dies and Ciel's parents take her back home to the South. By the time Ciel comes to live at Brewster Place, she is grown and has a baby daughter, Serena. Her common-law husband, Eugene, has been absent since Serena's birth, but has returned with a new job and seems intent on staying this time. Ciel's dreams are simple: to keep her husband and to build a family. However, she's in love with the wrong man. Eugene is immature, irresponsible, verbally abusive, and physically threatening. When Ciel becomes pregnant again, he's ready to desert her again. Desperate to hold on to him, Ciel gets an abortion, killing one dream. Too late, she finds that he intends to leave her anyway, and another dream dies. Then Serena is electrocuted while playing in the kitchen. Stripped of every dream she ever had, Ciel nearly dies from rage and grief. It is only Mattie who finds a way to lead her back from the brink of despair.
Cora Lee's parents supplied her with everything "they felt necessary for a growing child." She was an obedient daughter, a good student, and easy to please. All she ever quietly demanded, year after year, was a new baby doll at Christmas. It became a ritual. Then a neighbor boy introduced Cora Lee to "the thing that felt good in the dark," and she learned that this could produce babies—real babies. Now Cora Lee is single, subsisting on welfare with seven children, and living on Brewster Place. Like Mattie, the role of mother defines her as a woman, but she is in many ways still a child playing with baby dolls. Although caring and conscientious when her babies are little, as soon as they start to grow up, she is at a loss as to how to care for them. Cora Lee's relationship with men is not a defining force in her life. Men are there for sexual pleasure and to help her make babies. They are nameless "shadows" that she is content to let come and go in the night. Cora Lee is living out her odd dream of making babies. Another dream briefly materializes when she takes the children to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in the park. She imagines herself as a responsible mother shaping a bright future for all her children. This dream dissolves before the night is over when Cora Lee returns home to find another "shadow" waiting for her in her bed.
Lorraine is a tall, thin, light-skinned African American woman with slightly protruding teeth and a bell-like tone to her voice. She and her partner, Theresa, move to Brewster Place hoping to live in peace, away from the prying eyes and judgment of a homophobic society. Lorraine is a first-grade schoolteacher. To be revealed as a lesbian would mean losing her job. Secrecy is thus important for her job security. Lorraine also is hypersensitive to what other people think and desperately wants to be accepted by the community of Brewster Place. When rumors of her relationship with Theresa spread among the tenants, she not only begins to fear for her job, but suffers deeply from the public shaming inflicted by some of the neighbors. Unexpectedly, Lorraine finds solace and acceptance with Ben, the building superintendent. Theirs is the only positive male-female relationship in Brewster Place. Lorraine reminds Ben of his lost daughter and, during their long chats in his damp, ugly basement room, she feels like a human being—"somebody's daughter or somebody's friend"—and not a freak. Lorraine's dreams of peace and acceptance end in violence when she is brutally gang raped, destroying her mentally, physically, and spiritually. In her insanity following the attack, she murders Ben. Because she and Theresa are in a sense inseparable, when Lorraine's dreams die, Theresa's die as well.
Theresa is a short, dark, African American woman and Lorraine's life partner. She shares Lorraine's dream of living in peace on Brewster Place. Unlike her partner, Theresa is thick-skinned about what other people think of her, and does not fear losing her job as personnel director for the Board of Education. The breakdown of the couple's rapport with the Brewster Place community injects discord into Theresa's relationship with Lorraine. On the one hand, she resents Lorraine's sensitivity and need to belong, her weakness and dependence, and her inability to accept that, as lesbians, they will always be scorned by society. On the other hand, she dislikes it when Lorraine's friendship with Ben strengthens her and makes her feel more independent and at ease with herself. These conflicted feelings are at the core of the couple's final quarrel that sends Lorraine out alone to a party and ends with her rape in the alley and her disoriented killing of Ben. It's not clear whether Lorraine then dies herself, or is imprisoned. However, Theresa will spend the rest of her life replaying their final moments together, inventing "a thousand different things she could have said or done" to change the evening's fatal outcome.
Ben has little direct contact with the individual tenants of Brewster Place. However, because Lorraine somehow reminds him of his long-lost daughter, he develops a relationship with her. They often sit talking in his dismal room and adopt quasi-familial feelings for each other. Maddened and disoriented following her brutal rape, Lorraine stumbles across and kills the drunken Ben.