Authors: Alice Childress

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Identity: African American

Author Works

Drama:

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)

Long Fiction:

A Short Walk, 1979

Short Fiction:

Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, 1956

Screenplay:

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

Edited Text:

Black Scenes: Collection of Scenes from Plays Written by Black People About Black Experience, 1971

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810002033}{$I[A]Childress, Alice}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Childress, Alice}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Childress, Alice}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Childress, Alice}{$I[tim]1916;Childress, Alice}

Alice Childress in 1991.

(Ray Grist)

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.

BibliographyAustin, Gayle. “Alice Childress: Black Woman Playwright as Feminist Critic.” Southern Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1987): 53-62. Focuses on Childress as social critic and transformer of images of black women. Discusses Trouble in Mind and Wine in the Wilderness in the context of Elizabeth Abel’s three stages of feminist criticism.Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. “Black Women Playwrights Exorcizing Myths.” Phylon 48 (Fall, 1997): 229-239. Examines the work of Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange in dispelling stereotypical myths of African American characters, such as the tragic mulatto and the comic Negro, and in presenting new constructions, such as the black militant and the evolving black woman.Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. Contains summaries and comparisons of the work of Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange.Childress, Alice. Interview by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. An interesting conversation with Childress.Dugan, Olga. “Telling the Truth: Alice Childress as Theorist and Playwright.” The Journal of Negro History 81 (1996): 123-137. Examines Childress’s essays as a reflection of her theory of a black self-determinist theater, in which individual black playwrights should use Negro culture and history in plays that demonstrate black self-determination. Childress believed such plays should focus on realistic situations and conditions under which African Americans live.Jennings, LaVinia Delois. Alice Childress. New York: Twayne, 1995. A comprehensive, accessible critical introduction to Childress’s life and work. Especially helpful are a succinct chronology of Childress’s life and work and a bibliography divided into primary sources–Childress’s novels, plays, productions in other media, and her articles, essays, and interviews–and secondary sources.Maguire, Roberta S. “Alice Childress.” In Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Third Series, edited by Christopher Wheatley. Vol. 249 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. A good introduction to Childress. Contains biographical information and an evaluation of her works.
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