Alice Childress Essay - Childress, Alice (Vol. 12)

Childress, Alice (Vol. 12)


Alice Childress 1920–

Black American playwright, novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. Childress's works examine the complexity of relationships between blacks and whites and the various ways blacks survive in contemporary society. She is sharply observant and unsentimental, and uses a strong theatrical sense in both her drama and her fiction. While Childress is considered a talented playwright, her works have been infrequently produced. An early play, Trouble in Mind, deals with a group of black actors rehearsing a white play about blacks. Although it was critically acclaimed as an off-Broadway production and won the 1956 Obie Award, it was never performed on Broadway due to disputes over theme and interpretation which caused Childress to withdraw it. However, it was her first work to be seen outside Harlem, and was a precursor of the black naturalistic plays of the late 1960s. Childress feels she got her dramatic bent from her grandmother, a theatrical storyteller, and from the influences of the Bible, Shakespeare, and black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. As an actress, she was one of the original members of The American Negro Theatre, and later served as a director there for twelve years. Childress turned to writing plays in the late 1940s when a one-act play, Florence, was favorably reviewed for its realistic dialogue and strong characterization. Her first novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, was praised for similar reasons, and has become recognized as a classic portrayal of a young urban heroin addict and his world. Despite a small output, Childress has developed a reputation as a writer of realistic works of quality. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols, 45-48, and Something about the Author, Vol. 7.)

Arthur Gelb

The author of "Trouble in Mind" is Alice Childress, a writer with a quick eye for the foibles and crotches, the humor and pathos of backstage life in the type of Broadway production that utilizes a predominantly Negro cast.

Miss Childress … has some witty and penetrating things to say about the dearth of roles for Negro actors in the contemporary theatre, the cut-throat competition for these parts and the fact that Negro actors often find themselves playing stereotyped roles in which they cannot bring themselves to believe.

She also has some sharp comments to make about the jumpy state of nerves in the much-investigated entertainment media. But it is all done with good humor and, except for the last [sections of dialogue], manages to avoid any impassioned sermonizing. (p. 23)

Arthur Gelb, in The New York Times (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1955.

Loften Mitchell

Miss Childress writes with a sharp, satiric touch. Character seems to interest her more than plot. Her characterizations are piercing, her observations devastating. Apparently, she feels the American race problem is a family fight but not in the sense that a Dixiecrat would claim the problem in the South is the South's alone. Miss Childress seems to believe there is a direct relationship between black and white, that these are grandchildren and cousins who are being denied human decency. She, therefore, calls on the nation to reexamine itself morally.

[Her] play, Wedding Band, suggests this in bold terms. Here she deals with an interracial couple that cannot marry because of southern laws. The play reaches a rousing climax when the Negro woman defines for a white woman exactly what the Negro has meant in terms of southern lives. (p. 221)

Wedding Band is, to all who have heard it, an exceptionally well-written, humorous, dramatic piece, positive in its approach and fully deserving a first-rate production. (p. 222)

Loften Mitchell, in The Crisis (copyright 1965 by The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.), April, 1965.

Clive Barnes

[Childress's one-act play "String"] was suggested by the Guy de Maupassant story of the Norman peasant Hauchecorne, called "The Piece of String." The short story is concerned with the ironically narrow balance between guilt and innocence, and Maupassant, with that crisply inpersonal cynicism that is almost the crest of Romanticism, treats it with a brief wit and a long compassion. The play does not.

The play in fairness is completely different. Only the memory remains. Miss Childress has set her play at a black block party picnic. The characters are nicely judged. The Cadillac-bar-owning bully, the happily socially weaving bourgeois matrons, and the cryptomiser, accused of theft; these people are part of an incandescently recognizable scene. It was the recognition of that scene that was itself interesting.

The fault of the piece was simply that it was too prolonged for its subject. The Maupassant short story makes its obliquely satiric point in a matter of minutes. The play drags out. It is worth noting, in passing, that short stories very rarely serve well as plays if only because the time span is so different. (p. 37)

Clive Barnes, in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 2, 1969.

Doris E. Abramson

Alice Childress has been, from the beginning, a crusader and a writer who resists compromise. She tries to write about Negro problems as honestly as she can, and she refuses production of her plays if the producer wants to change them in a way which distorts her intentions. (p. 190)

The title [of] Trouble in Mind comes from a blues song of the same name. Alice Childress chose to tell about trouble in a milieu that she knows well—the theatre. The three acts of Trouble in Mind take place during rehearsals in a Broadway theatre…. The play being rehearsed is one about Negroes and whites….

Trouble in Mind has interesting characters and dialogue, though both tend to ring false whenever they are saturated with sermonizing. The setting, the stage of a theatre during rehearsals, invites an audience to participate in a ritual usually forbidden them and therefore tantalizing. The plot amounts to very little—a group of actors rehearse a play, quarrel about interpretation, get the director to agree to ask the playwright to make changes in the script. What lends the play significance is that the cast is predominantly Negro. As attitudes in the company are modified, people's lives are affected, and this play about a rehearsal makes a comment on life itself.

And yet, too much of Trouble in Mind is willed—what the French call voulu. A reader of the script is very much aware of the author pulling strings, putting her own words into a number of mouths. This is not, however, to deny the theatrical effectiveness of the play in production. (p. 203)

To read the play is to be much more aware than [seeing it in production] of the extent to which Miss Childress loaded the play with Negro problems….

It would be better if she did not assault race prejudice at every turn, for she sometimes sacrifices depth of character in the process….

The characters need a humanizing complexity to keep them from ever becoming the stereotypes featured in "Chaos in Belleville" [the play being rehearsed within Childress' play]. (p. 204)

Doris E. Abramson, in her Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925–1959 (copyright © 1967, 1969 Columbia University Press: reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press. 1969.

Donald T. Evans

Black people have recognized the need for their own theater. To give voice to our esthetic meant that we had to be free of the white man's evaluation, his standards of quality. It goes without saying that this need for our own encompasses much more than just theater, but Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress begins with the hassle of the Black artist. She shows the difficulty of working in the man's theater and maintaining one's integrity and identity. She shows why the Black Arts Movement had to come about. White America doesn't want to know about Black people, she says. They are much more comfortable with the half-human creatures they created and maintained in asinine comedy after comedy. (p. 44)

Donald T. Evans, in Black World (copyright © February, 1971, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Johnson Publishing Company and Donald T. Evans), February, 1971.

Clive Barnes

["Wedding Band"] is a romantic play, and does not entirely escape the charge of sentimentality.

The writing is rather old-fashioned in its attempt at Ibsenite realism, and neither the situation nor the characters really change from the beginning of the play to the end. But perhaps that was par for the course in South Carolina in 1918, and the play has a cosy efficiency that always holds the attention. It is a sweet old love story about hard, dusty times in a hard, dusty place.

What did black people think and talk about in 1918? We are so used to the black stereotypes thrust on us by the white literature of the time or to the films of a period just a little later that it is difficult...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Edith Oliver

["Wedding Band" is a play about] a pair of lovers no longer young. She is black, he is white; she is a seamstress, he is a baker named Herman. The time is 1918, while the United States is still at war, and the place is a city in South Carolina….

Much of the wealth of "Wedding Band" is in the small scenes of byplay among the neighbors. For the most part, Miss Childress … [succeeds] in creating a whole style of life at that time and in that place…. All through the action, things are on the move: two little girls run around and scream and play, a nasty white peddler wanders in and out, and everyone minds everyone else's business, sometimes in a very kind and supportive way. The first act is...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Walter Kerr

["Wedding Band" is an] honest and provocative look into black life in America just as World War I was giving way to the Twenties, though it has its vitamin deficiencies as drama…. Using a kind of South Carolina backyard chorus as counterpoint to a private tug-of-war between [a seamstress and her white lover of long standing] …, Miss Childress is at her best with the peripheral figures who lead prayer, read letters for one another, and spy upon the forbidden liaison with generous candor….

The play, as it stands, does little more than illustrate what we have already known: that intermarriage, especially in redneck districts, is apt to be opposed….

[The] play moves only at its...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Harold Clurman

[Wedding Band] has an authenticity which, whatever its faults, makes it compelling….

The play's basic theme emerges from the portrayal not only of the bigoted opposition of Herman's family, with its vile Klan spirit, but just as saliently in the suspicion and fear with which the blacks confront the two lovers. Herman, on the verge of death during the influenza epidemic which raged at the time, proves his deep attachment to Julia by buying her a ticket to New York even as he lies helpless, still in the grip of his wretched family. She on the other hand, though convinced of his love and freedom from racial bias, despairs of overcoming the barriers between them.

There is an...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Ed Bullins

There are too few books that convince us that reading is one of the supreme gifts of being human. Alice Childress, in her short, brilliant study of a 13-year-old black heroin user, "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwhich," achieves this feat in a masterly way by telling a real story of the victims of today's worst urban plague, heroin addiction, and it reaffirms the belief that excellent writing is alive and thriving in some black corners of America. (pp. 36, 38)

This surprisingly exciting, entertaining book demystifies the pusher and the problem he sells by centering on the unwitting victim, Benjie, and the disintegration of a black family. With their own voices the people in this story tell the...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Norma Rogers

In A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, Alice Childress intimately portrays the oppression of the working class people living in Afro-American communities. With fine perception, she tells about thirteen year old Benjie Johnson, a victim of drug addiction, his family, friends and neighbors living in the Harlem ghetto. (pp. 72-3)

Alice Childress has written a moving story that vividly describes life in the ghettos of Black America. It is a grim picture that holds little or no promise for the children's future. (p. 74)

The author has presented an examination of society on the decline in the United States. The salient question regarding the survival of Afro-American children as...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

James V. Hatch

Bill Jameson [in Wine in the Wilderness] is the product of the old black bourgeois values. Sonny-Man and Cynthia are also victims of this old social order. They are educated; They consciously and unconsciously label themselves "better" than Tommy and Oldtimer. They are empty, artificial people, preaching blackness, brotherhood, and love simply because it is in vogue. Innately they are cold, cruel, and self-centered individuals. They are reflections of the old slave masters, imitators of white middle-class, who accept Oldtimer (they don't even know his name) because they find him amusing, and Tommy only because they feel she can be used…. [Bill's] orientation is white; no matter how hard he tries to assert his...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Ray Anthony Shepard

The young adult novel seems to be here to stay, and with books like Alice Childress's A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich … one can see why.

Young and Black Benjie Johnson is a junkie. Through a series of brillliant vignettes, we see Benjie through his own eyes and through the eyes of those around him as he nods his way through his thirteenth year.

Benjie wants someone to believe in him, but since heroes are only sandwiches, the question for Benjie is who can be his hero?…

In short, there is no one so Benjie tries to become his own hero.

Finally, [it is] Butler Craig, the common man—not the sports hero or movie star or street corner...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Zena Sutherland

There is little movement in this one-act drama [When the Rattlesnake Sounds], but a wealth of poignant dialogue….

The title refers to [Harriet Tubman's] consoling Celia about her fear by saying, "Child, you lookin at a woman who's been plenty afraid. When the rattlesnake sounds a warnin … it's time to be scared." Despite the lack of action, the play is moving because of its subject and impressive because of the deftness with which Childress develops characters and background in so brief and static a setting. (p. 140)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved),...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

Mary M. Burns

Generally, plays written especially for young people are reviewed as useful rather than as literary works. [When the Rattlesnake Sounds], however, is a poignant celebration of courage, a beautifully crafted work drawn from the life of Harriet Tubman. Rather than attempting the usual chronological panoramic pageant, replete with trite dialogue and a cast of thousands, the author has wisely chosen to confine her drama to one act, focusing on the summer during which Harriet worked as a hotel laundress in Cape May, New Jersey, in order to raise money for the abolitionist cause. Skillful use of introductory notes, stage directions, and the scene-within-a-scene device gives insight not only into the life of the...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

John T. Gillespie

Alice Childress' experience as playwright and actress is revealed in the brilliant characterization and dialogue in Hero, essentially the story of a 13-year-old black boy, Benjie Johnson, and his near-fatal brush with permanent heroin addiction. It is told honestly in the vital, but strong, street idiom of Harlem by several people close to Benjie, and by Benjie himself. While each monologue is part of the story, it also presents a different point of view and helps to develop a gallery of memorable characters. (p. 54)

Hero is not just a family of blacks and their problems: it deals with themes and experiences that are universal, such as rejection, love, the importance of family ties,...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Miguel Ortiz

Each chapter [in A Hero Ain't Nothin but a Sandwich] is essentially a monologue delivered by each of the different participants in the story. This allows for utmost flexibility in portraying the conflicting interest of the several characters. It is difficult, though not impossible, to show a situation in all its complexity and yet convince a reader that it is a child's perception. Alice Childress avoids this predicament with a most felicitous result. No doubt the fact that she is a playwright has a great deal to do with her ability to let each character speak for him or herself.

The monologue technique not only has the advantage of describing the action from several vantage points, but it also...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Sally R. Sommer

Trouble in Mind is a play about black actors rehearsing a pretentious, liberal, anti-lynching play written by whites, produced by whites, and directed by whites—it is a comedy and its humor is black. Writing in 1955 (three years before Genet's The Blacks), Alice Childress used the concentric circles of the play-within-the-play to examine the multiple roles blacks enact in order to survive. Twenty-three years later we can look at the play and see its double cutting edge: It predicts not only the course of social history but the course of black playwrighting. The plot is about an emerging rebellion begun as the heroine, Wiletta, refuses to enact a namby-Mammy, either in the play or for her director. The...

(The entire section is 336 words.)