Alice Childress Biography

Alice Childress Biography

Alice Childress broke the rules for what was acceptable in young adult writing. Her most famous work, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, earned her significant praise, as well as a good deal of criticism. The book was included in a Supreme Court lawsuit over appropriate school reading for children because it depicts a thirteen-year-old boy’s struggle with heroin addiction. Written in multiple points of view and set in a poor urban environment, the novel was a far cry from the all-American wholesomeness of youth fiction like the works of Beverly Cleary. Childress may have stirred controversy with her writing, but in doing so, she told the story of a significant and underrepresented segment of the population of America.

Facts and Trivia

  • Early in her life, it was acting—not writing—for which Childress was known. She worked briefly at the American Negro Theatre, which helped launch the careers of contemporaries like Sidney Poitier.
  • Childress’ first play, Florence, was produced in 1950, marking an important early success for black female playwrights.
  • Childress herself adapted A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich into a screenplay for the 1978 film version.
  • In addition to her numerous literary accolades, Childress was the first female recipient of the Obie Award, the Off-Broadway equivalent of the Tony Award.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Alice Childress was five years old when her parents separated and she was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, who had seven children of her own. Although Grandmother Eliza was a poverty-stricken former slave with only a fifth-grade education, she was intellectually curious and self-educated. Childress credited her grandmother with teaching her how to observe and encouraging her to write. Her grandmother also took her to Salem Church in Harlem, where Alice learned storytelling from the Wednesday night testimonials. Childress was educated in New York public schools, leaving before she graduated from high school. She encountered racial prejudice at school but recalled several teachers who made a difference, encouraging her to read and introducing her to the library.

Childress revealed little about her private life, but it is known that she married and divorced Alvin Childress, who played Amos on television’s Amos ’n’ Andy Show. The couple had a daughter, Jean, born on November 1, 1935, who was raised by her mother. To support herself and her child while she tried to establish her writing and acting career, Childress held a variety of jobs, including domestic servant, salesperson, and insurance agent. Through these jobs, she became acquainted with numerous working-class people, whose lives became the basis of characters in her later plays and novels.

In 1941 Childress joined the American Negro Theatre (ANT), which met in the Schomburg Library in Harlem. Like all ANT members, Childress participated in all aspects of theater, though her main interest was acting. She stayed with ANT for eleven years but was frustrated by the emphasis on issues important to black men and the consequent neglect of black women’s issues and roles. When she tried to act in the theater at large, she ran into problems because she was considered too light-skinned to play black roles but not fair enough to play whites. Although she starred in the Broadway production of Anna Lucasta (1944-1946) and did some work in radio and television, Childress finally concluded that she would be better able to express herself as a writer.

Interested in creating complex and realistic black female characters, Childress wrote Florence, a one-act play that she hoped would show that African American drama did not have to be sensational to...

(The entire section is 966 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 652 words.)