The title alludes to a style of musical declamation that hovers between song and ordinary speech; it is used for dialogic and narrative interludes during operas and oratories. The term "recitatif" also once included the now-obsolete meaning, "the tone or rhythm peculiar to any language." Both of these definitions suggest the story's episodic nature, how each of the story's five sections happens in a register that is different from the respective ordinary lives of its two central characters, Roberta and Twyla. The story's vignettes bring together the rhythms of two lives for five, short moments, all of them narrated in Twyla's own voice. The story is, then, in several ways, Twyla's "recitatif."
"'Recitatif' was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial," writes Toni Morrison in her Preface to Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
Twyla and Roberta first met within the confines of a state home for children, St. Bonaventura (St. Bonny's), because each has been taken away from her mother. Roberta's mother is sick; Twyla's mother "'likes to dance all night'." We learn immediately that the girls look different from one another -- one is black, one is white, but despite their initially hostile feelings, they are drawn together because of their similar circumstances. Morrison does not tell the readers the race of either girl and this ambiguity remains throughout the story. They turn out to be, in Maya Angelou's famous phrase, "more alike than unalike." Each eight-year-old was "dumped" there. They become allies against the "big girls on the second floor" as well as against the home's "real orphans," the children whose parents have died. They share a fascination with Maggie, a woman who works in the home's kitchen and who can't speak. Twyla and Roberta are reminded of their differences on the Sunday that each of their mother's comes to visit and attend church with them. Twyla's mother Mary is dressed inappropriately; Roberta's mother, wearing an enormous cross on her even more enormous chest, refuses to shake Mary's hand. Twyla experiences twin humiliations: her mother's off-beat behavior shames her; she feels slighted by Roberta's mother's refusal.
The second time we encounter Twyla and Roberta, Twyla is "working behind the counter at the Howard Johnson's on the Thruway," and Roberta is sitting in a booth with "two guys smothered in head and facial hair." Roberta and her friends are on their way to the west coast to keep an appointment with Jimi Hendrix. The episode is brief, but long enough to make Twyla feel like an outsider in Roberta's world.
Time passes again, and we hear about James, Twyla's husband, and her son Joseph. Twyla is living a middle class life with her fireman husband and his large extended family who have lived for generations in a neighborhood that has recently begun to gentrify. Twyla meets Roberta at the Food Emporium just opened to cater to the area's new population. This meeting is friendlier than the previous one; the two exchange details about their married lives. Roberta has four stepchildren and a limousine with a driver. Their conversation ultimately turns to their past and Maggie. Each woman has a different recollection of an incident in which Maggie either fell down or was pushed down in the orchard at St. Bonny's. The racial tensions between the two women draw tighter, and they part uncomfortably.
The next time we hear from Twyla, "racial strife" threatens her town in the form of inter-neighborhood busing. As she drives by the school, Twyla sees Roberta there, picketing the forced integration. Twyla is briefly threatened by the other protesters; Roberta doesn't come to her aid. Roberta's parting remark unsettles Twyla:
"Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you're not. You're the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady and you have the nerve to call me a bigot."
Twyla does not remember that Maggie was black. "Maggie wasn't black," she writes. Twyla decides to join the counter-picketing across the street from Roberta, where she spends a few days hoisting signs that respond directly to Roberta's sign.
We meet Twyla and Roberta once more; this time it is in a coffeeshop at Christmas, years later. Roberta wants to discuss what she last said about Maggie. The conversation is sympathetic but ends on an unresolved paper.