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 American population. 

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 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, or the Off-Broadway Theater Awards. 

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966

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.

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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 be significant. This drama, about a working-class black woman on her way to New York to rescue her daughter from a failed career in the theater, opened new areas to African American theater, eventually influencing Amiri Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Theater and woman-centered African American dramatists such as Ntozake Shange. Childress’s next plays did not focus on women, however. One was a reworking of Langston Hughes’s serialized articles, Simple Speaks His Mind, published in the Chicago Defender, as a musical review titled Just a Little Simple.

In 1955, Childress returned to her controversial subjects and assertive black women characters with Trouble in Mind, a play about a black actress trying to maintain her dignity while playing menial roles. The play was well received Off-Broadway, but Broadway options were abandoned because producers considered it too risky for the commercial theater. It was presented twice by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), however. Childress received the Obie Award for Trouble in Mind in 1956, becoming the first woman to receive the award.

Also in 1956, Childress published Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, a series of vignettes or monologues that incorporated sketches from her Baltimore Afro-American column “Here’s Mildred,” which she would write through 1958. The column and book centered on Mildred, a domestic servant modeled on Childress’s aunt. On July 17, 1957, she married a musician named Nathan Woodward. She and Woodward collaborated on a number of projects; he wrote music for her play Sea Island Song, later produced as Gullah.

During the 1960’s, Childress focused on writing plays. She chose to ignore white audiences and focused on controversial topics, which made production difficult. During this period, she wrote Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, which focused on interracial lovers; The Freedom Drum (later retitled Young Martin Luther King); String, an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “A Piece of String”; and Wine in the Wilderness, on revolution and black males’ problematic attitudes toward black women.

Also during this period, Childress participated in a variety of communities of writers and scholars. In 1965 she was part of a BBC panel discussion, “The Negro in American Theater,” which also included James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones ( Amiri Baraka), and Langston Hughes. The writer Tillie Olsen recommended Childress for an appointment at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, where she worked on her writing from 1966 to 1968.

During the 1970’s Childress traveled extensively to study drama and other arts: to the Soviet Union in 1971; to Beijing and Shanghai, China, in 1973; and to Ghana, West Africa, in 1974. She also shifted the focus of her own writing at this time, producing a young adult novel, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich and its screenplay; two plays for children, When the Rattlesnake Sounds, about a summer in the life of escaped slave Harriet Tubman, and Let’s Hear It for the Queen; and A Short Walk, a novel. Also in 1979, Childress’s play Sea Island Song, which had been commissioned by the South Carolina Arts Commission, was presented in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, during the observance of Alice Childress Week.

In the 1980’s, Childress continued to write and speak out. She wrote her second young adult novel, Rainbow Jordan, in 1981. She was artist-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1984. Her final works were Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne, based on the life of comedienne “Moms” Mabley, and a novel, Those Other People. Her daughter Jean died of cancer in May, 1990. Four years later, Childress died of cancer, in Queens.

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