Florence, pr. 1949
Just a Little Simple, pr. 1950
Gold Through the Trees, pr. 1952
Trouble in Mind, pr. 1955
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, pr. 1966 (staged), pr. 1973 (televised)
The World on a Hill, pb. 1968
Wine in the Wilderness, pr. 1969 (televised), pr. 1976 (staged)
String, pr. 1969 (staged), pr. 1979 (televised; adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story)
The Freedom Drum, pr. 1969 (music by Nathan Woodard; retitled Young Martin Luther King)
Mojo: A Black Love Story, pr. 1970
The African Garden, pb. 1971 (with Woodard)
When the Rattlesnake Sounds, pb. 1975 (for children)
Let’s Hear It for the Queen, pb. 1976 (for children)
Sea Island Song, pr. 1979 (with Woodard; pr. 1984 as Gullah)
Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne, pr. 1987 (with Woodard)
A Short Walk, 1979
Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, 1956
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, 1978 (adaptation of her novel)
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, 1973
Rainbow Jordan, 1981
Those Other People, 1989
Black Scenes: Collection of Scenes from Plays Written by Black People About Black Experience, 1971
Alice Childress (CHIHL-drehs) was the first African American woman to write plays that were professionally produced over four decades. Born in South Carolina, she was sent at the age of five to Harlem to live with her grandmother, who encouraged her to write. Childress completed only three years of high school before the deaths of her grandmother and mother forced her to drop out of school. An early marriage ended in divorce, after which she held menial jobs to support herself and her daughter, Jean. A strong interest in theater led her to the stage in 1940.
Alice Childress in 1991.
In 1941, Childress became a founding member of the American Negro Theater, Harlem, where she was an actor and director for eleven years. In her first dramatic work, Florence, an African American woman (originally played by Childress) and a white woman meet in a segregated waiting room. The following year, she wrote the script for a musical revue, Just a Little Simple, based on Langston Hughes’s book Simple Speaks His Mind (1950). Childress initiated Harlem’s first all-union contracts for black performers and stagehands for this and her third play, Gold Through the Trees.
Childress’s first full-length play, Trouble in Mind, which she starred in and directed, explores the tensions among performers in an interracial cast. The play attacks both the way in which whites present black experience and the reluctance of African Americans to insist on the truth. Although Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award in 1956 for best original Off-Broadway play (Childress was the first woman to receive this honor), its subject was considered too sensitive for Broadway, and she refused to make changes. That same year, she published Like One of the Family, which consists of monologues by a black domestic worker and first appeared as the newspaper column “Here’s Mildred” in Paul Robeson’s Freedom and later in the Baltimore Afro-American.
In 1957, Childress married the musician Nathan Woodard; they later collaborated on four musical plays. In the 1960’s, Childress continued to address controversy. In Wedding Band, she explores the love affair between a black woman and a white man in South Carolina. Critics of both races condemned her characters, although the play was sold out in Chicago for six weeks. Wine in the Wilderness, which was written for public television and embraced the theme of black pride, was banned in the state of Alabama.
From 1966 to 1968, Childress attended the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, to which she was nominated by Tillie Olsen, and in 1967 she was awarded a Rockefeller grant to pursue her craft. In the 1970’s, she began writing plays and books for young adults. Her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was narrated by an unusual male protagonist, a teenage drug user, and by ten other characters. It was named Outstanding Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review and received many honors; it also became part of a censorship case before the U.S. Supreme Court. For the film version, Childress earned the 1977 Virgin Islands Film Festival Award for best screenplay and the first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts.
She published an adult novel and two more books for young adults. Her final play, Moms, was a tribute to the black comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley. At the time of her death from cancer, Childress was working on a novel about the relationship between her African great-grandmother, who was a slave until she was twelve, and her Scotch-Irish great-grandmother.
In a theater that historically excluded women and African Americans, Alice Childress was a pioneer who made possible the emergence of professional black theater and gave black women a voice. She celebrated working-class people, attacked racism and sexism, and sought social justice. Her writing did not always follow popular trends, but she never compromised her art or her vision. Her influence as actor, director, playwright, and novelist was enormous.