Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Childress, an actor and an original member of the American Negro Theater company, codirected Trouble in Mind, her first full-length play, which ran for ninety-one performances. The work earned Childress an Obie Award for the best original Off-Broadway play, the first ever won by a black woman. An important statement of the play is its attack on the white retelling of African American experience and the refusal of blacks to insist on the truth. Thus, when Trouble in Mind was scheduled for Broadway, Childress refused to execute script changes that would make the play more palatable to a white audience, a decision strongly supported by her colleagues, and the project was canceled.
Childress, the great-granddaughter of a slave, was hailed as “the mother of professional black theater in America.” Her fourteen plays include the one-act Florence (pr. 1949, pb. 1950), and Just a Little Simple (pr. 1950), a musical-revue adaptation of Langston Hughes’s book Simple Speaks His Mind (1950). Just a Little Simple and Gold Through the Trees (pr. 1952) were the first plays by a black woman to be professionally produced with unionized actors. Childress also wrote four books; her young adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1973) was nominated for the National Book Award.
In a theater that historically excluded women and blacks, Childress established new ground and made possible the emergence of many black women playwrights. As an African American, she commanded the attention of black audiences and also of whites. Her concern for plain speaking never wavered. She once vowed that “I will not keep quiet, and I will not stop telling the truth.”