Alice Childress’s playwriting career spanned four decades, an achievement in itself. Even more important, she broke with tradition followed by both male and female playwrights, which held that significant African American drama dealt with sensational topics such as lynching and focused on male concerns such as the disenfranchisement of the black man. Childress chose instead to write about the concerns of black women. A major theme is the female psychological journey; it applies equally to her domestics such as Mildred in Like One of the Family and disappointed artists such as Wiletta Mayer in Trouble in Mind.
Childress addressed issues of gender and race through her black female characters. She worked against stereotypes prevalent in both black and white American literature to present ordinary women—strong, searching for their identities, and standing up to prejudices based on class, gender, and race. Even when she wrote about controversial topics such as miscegenation, her characters and the situations mere realistic and believable. Her explorations laid the groundwork for later African American women playwrights such as Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez.
Childress’s unwillingness to compromise her principles or play to white audience cost her in terms of production and visibility. However, she attracted the attention of feminist scholars in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and she has always had the attention of African American theater people. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory calls her the mother of African American professional theater, and the debt that those who followed her owe to her pioneering work in presenting realistic and complex black women characters supports that title.
Trouble in Mind
Childress uses two tried and true theatrical devices in Trouble in Mind—a play-within-a-play and metadrama, focusing on an examination of theater itself. Placed in the larger context of the Civil Rights movement, with allusions to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., the play features Wiletta Mayer, a veteran actress who has been cast in an antilynching drama written by a white playwright. Although Wiletta and the other veteran black actors have been conditioned to accept the denigrating conditions of working in white-controlled theater, she cannot justify her character’s advising her son to give himself up to a lynch mob. When she argues against the play and its portrayal of blacks, the cast is dismissed with the clear implication that Wiletta will not be called for the next rehearsal. The play-within-the-play, however, has made clear the problems of stereotypes of African Americans.
This play about the ten-year romantic relationship of a black seamstress, Julia, and a white baker, Herman, was not well received either by blacks, who saw it as integrationist, or whites, who were offended by the topic of miscegenation. In the world of the play, Julia receives little support from her black neighbors, who do not see her relationship with Herman as positive in any way, or from Herman’s mother and sister, who make racist comments and try to sabotage the relationship. When Herman develops influenza, collapsing in Julia’s home, the situation is serious because the same laws that have prevented Julia and Herman’s marriage will result in their prosecution if the relationship is discovered. Julia calls in Herman’s mother, but instead of help, she gets abuse. She does stand up to her, though, claiming her place as her daughter-in-law. The play examines problematic relationships between black and white women and between black women themselves, as well as the interracial love relationship.
Wine in the Wilderness
Wine in the Wilderness is set in the apartment of a middle-class black artist during a 1960’s Harlem riot. Childress depicts the arrogance and ignorance of the black middle...
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class in the artist’s treatment of a young lower-class black woman, Tommy (Tomorrow Marie). The artist, Bill, has been working on a triptych dedicated to black womanhood—as Bill understands it. He has completed two of the panels, one depicting “innocent” black girlhood, the second a beautiful, regal woman representing an idealized Mother Africa. He has been looking for a model for the third panel—the “lost” black woman of his imagination, rude and vulgar, the antithesis of the African queen. His neighbors find Tommy during the riot, and she, believing that she is to be the model for an ideal woman in the artist’s work, goes with them to his apartment. When she realizes the truth, she confronts the group. Finally Bill understands his shortsightedness and persuades “his” Tomorrow to pose for the new center panel as woman of the future. The middle-class assimilationists learn to value an assertive black woman.