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Alice Childress 1920-1994

American playwright, screenwriter, novelist, prose writer, editor, and author of children's books.

Childress is considered a pivotal yet critically neglected figure in contemporary African-American literature. Because she wrote about such topics as miscegenation and teenage drug abuse, some of her works have been banned from schools and...

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Alice Childress 1920-1994

American playwright, screenwriter, novelist, prose writer, editor, and author of children's books.

Childress is considered a pivotal yet critically neglected figure in contemporary African-American literature. Because she wrote about such topics as miscegenation and teenage drug abuse, some of her works have been banned from schools and libraries in various regions. In her dramas as well as in her novels for children and adults, Childress drew upon her own experiences and created relatively normal, everyday protagonists.

Biographical Information

Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but grew up in Harlem in New York City. She was raised primarily by her grandmother, who was an early influence on her writing, and attended high school for two years but left before graduation. She held several jobs while acting as a member of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem; as part of the company, she performed in A Midsummer Night's Dream and other works. Childress began to write dramas, later attributing this decision in part to her grandmother. She received a Harvard appointment as playwright and scholar to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study from 1966 to 1968. In 1977 she received the first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She died on August 14, 1994.

Major Works

Childress's first play, Florence, was produced in 1949. Set in a segregated railway station, the play explores the profound impact of racism on an African-American woman and a liberated white woman. Wedding Band (1966), which focuses on South Carolina's anti-miscegenation laws and an interracial love affair, was both controversial and difficult to produce. Despite praise accorded to its initial 1966 production in Michigan, Wedding Band did not reach a wider audience until 1973, when it was performed in New York. In Wine in the Wilderness (1969), Childress explored intraracial hostilities and prejudices. Although she devoted most of her career to drama, Childress was also a noted author of children's literature. She wrote two plays and three novels for children, including A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and Rainbow Jordan (1981). By far her best-known work, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is the story of thirteen-year-old Benjie Johnson's emerging addiction to heroin. His story is told from many points of view, including those of his stepfather, teachers, and drug dealer.

Critical Reception

Childress was instrumental in the genesis of African-American theater in America, and throughout her career remained a vital, uncompromising force in contemporary drama. Her plays and children's books have received much praise, yet many critics believe her work deserves even more attention and recognition. Although Florence was produced on a small scale in Harlem, the critical praise it received launched Childress's career. With Gold through the Trees, (1952) she became the first African-American woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage, and with Trouble in Mind (1955) she was the first woman to win an Obie Award for best original off-Broadway play. A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich was Childress's most controversial work and accounted for the majority of her critical attention. Despite overwhelming praise for its realistic treatment of a sensitive issue, several school districts banned the book, apparently on the grounds that its theme was inappropriate for young readers.

Principal Works

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Florence (drama) 1949

Just a Little Simple [adaptor; from the short story collection Simple Speaks His Mind by Langston Hughes] (drama) 1950

Gold through the Trees (drama) 1952

Trouble in Mind (drama) 1955

Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life (prose) 1956

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (drama) 1966

The Freedom Drum (drama) 1969

String [adaptor; from the short story “A Piece of String” by Guy de Maupassant] (drama) 1969

Wine in the Wilderness: A Comedy Drama (drama) 1969

Wine in the Wilderness (screenplay) 1969

Mojo: A Black Love Story (drama) 1970

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (novel) 1973

Wedding Band (screenplay) 1973

When the Rattlesnake Sounds (drama) 1975

Let's Hear It for the Queen (drama) 1976

Sea Island Song (drama) 1977

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (screenplay) 1978

A Short Walk (novel) 1979

String (screenplay) 1979

Rainbow Jordan (novel) 1981

Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (drama) 1987

Those Other People (novel) 1989

Catherine Wiley (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Whose Name, Whose Protection: Reading Alice Childress's Wedding Band,” in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 184-96.

[In the following essay, Wiley examines feminist and racial perspectives on Childress's Wedding Band.]

In the first act of Wedding Band, a scene of reading and performance occurs that lies at the center of a feminist interpretation of the play. Mattie, a black woman who makes her living selling candy and caring for a little white girl, has received a letter from her husband in the Merchant Marine and needs a translator for it. Her new neighbor, Julia, the educated outsider trying to fit into working-class surroundings, reads the sentimental sailor's letter aloud. After her performance, in which the women listening have actively participated, Mattie tells Julia that, in addition to his love, her husband gives her what is more important, his name and protection. These two standards of conventional love are denied Julia because her lover of ten years is white; and even Mattie learns that because she never divorced her first husband, she is not now legally married and cannot receive marital war benefits. Neither woman enjoys a man's name or his protection, in part because the chivalry implied in such privilege was unattainable for blacks in the Jim Crow society of 1918 South Carolina. The women in Wedding Band learn to depend on themselves and each other rather than on absent men, a self-reliance born painfully through self-acceptance.

Wedding Band received mixed reviews when it opened off-Broadway in 1972. It was described both as “the play about black life in America that isn't a ‘black’ play”1 and too much “like a story wrenched from the pages of what used to be known as a magazine for women.”2 Interesting for their racist and sexist connotations, these comments betray the reviewers' uncritical assumptions about who constitutes a theater audience. The play doesn't look “black” because its integrationist subtext surfaces only occasionally and its political urgency is dressed safely in realistic period costume. New York theater patrons of 1972 applauding the drama as entertainment alone could assure themselves that the play's World War I setting depicted a reality long past. The first reviewer assumes that a “black” play, one that speaks primarily to a black audience, is implicitly alien and uninteresting to a white audience. Representations of so-called minority lives told from a minority point of view cannot interest the rest of us, if we are white. Likewise, the pages of a women's magazine would bore us if we were men, because they focus on the small, private issues of home and heart. And although none of the liberal reviewers profess any shock over the play's important theme of miscegenation, no New York producers would touch Wedding Band until 1972, six years after it was written and first performed, attesting to the subject's unpopularity.

My reading of the play argues that its subject is less interracial heterosexual relations than the relations between black women and between black women and white women in World War I—era South Carolina. That said, I must add that I perceive a certain danger in trying to read feminist rather than racial politics into Alice Childress's play. White feminists must take care not to offer our own invaluable “name and protection” to black women writers who do not need them. For a feminist criticism that is not limited to the privileged location of many of its practitioners, it is crucial that white feminists read the work of black women, especially those like Childress who have been all but ignored in academic theater. We might read in the same spirit of canon disruption inspiring the informal creation of a women's literary counter-canon, recognizing that in the same way white women writers were denied membership in the old canon on the basis of “greatness,” we may be guilty of blocking black women writers for the same reason. The value of a literary text cannot be defined out of context. White readers should try to decentralize our historically majority context—to see ourselves, for once, in the margins with respect to the Afro-American women's literary tradition. I recognize with dismay the truth of Hortense J. Spillers's statement: “When we say ‘feminist’ with an adjective in front of it, we mean, of course, white women, who, as a category of social and cultural agents, fully occupy the territory of feminism.”3 But does including Afro-American women writers in the canon, which seems to be my project in writing for this book, imitate a colonizing gesture? Am I offering the protection of the canon to Alice Childress, protection on the canon's (and for now, white women's) terms? Instead of attempting to answer these questions now, I can only say that I am beginning to learn to read black women's plays in the same way many feminists ask men to read women's texts. Rather than seeing myself reflected in their work, I want to understand why my difference makes these plays a challenge to read.

Difference has become a feminist catch-word, complicated by its dual usage as what makes women different from men as well as what makes women different from each other. Teresa de Lauretis and Linda Gordon have argued recently that the first definition, which makes women's primary characteristic the fact that we are not men, risks becoming a substitute for women's opposition to men's discriminatory practice. This opposition, however, has always differed from one group of women to another, because our discrimination as women has always differed.4 The various ways we have resisted male practice through history define women as much as what we have in common biologically. It is not enough for white feminists merely to tolerate women of color or invite them to join our canon, but to understand how we are different, to understand differences among women as differences within women. Because, in de Lauretis' words, “not only does feminism exist despite those differences, but … it cannot continue to exist without them.”5

Many of these differences, especially between black women and white women in the United States, have been constituted historically. As Childress writes in the Negro Digest of April 1967, her newest play, Wedding Band, serves as a reminder of the many promises made in 1918 that are still unkept in 1967.6 During the gap between the play's initial production in 1966 at the University of Michigan and today, most of the promises of integration have been fulfilled legally; however, we still have much to learn of the limits of the successes of the civil rights movement. Although the Negro Digest article refers specifically to the Jim Crow laws prohibiting intermarriage, Childress's play can be read today as a history lesson pointed at white women to remind them and us, in 1966 or now, that our vision of sisterly equality has always left some sisters out. Until the Civil War, the women's rights movement was essentially inseparable from the abolitionist movement. As Angelina Grimke, the southern white abolitionist, wrote in 1838:

The discussion of the rights of the slave has opened the way for the discussion of other rights, and the ultimate result will most certainly be the breaking of every yoke, the letting the oppressed of every grade and description go free,—an emancipation far more glorious than any the world has ever yet seen.7

But the interests of women fighting for decades to assure themselves a voice in the political process could not be reconciled to those of white politicians eager to take advantage of black men's votes. Despite their political training as abolitionists, most of the white suffragists were quick to forgo interracial solidarity as their own movement foundered in the Reconstruction era.8

Black women's frustration heard an echo a century later as the civil rights movement shifted from its origins in the rural south to the industrialized north. Hundreds of black women in the south led the grassroots movement for desegregation and voter registration in the late 1950s, and in the early 1960s they trained younger white women who had come down from northern colleges to take part in the Freedom Rides. The early civil rights movement had been affected most dramatically by an army of nameless women: black women who honed their leadership skills in the only place available to them, their churches. But in 1964, an anonymous paper about women's position in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) circulated at the Waveland Conference, although assumed to be written by a black woman, was written by two white women who were trying to inject the civil rights movement with theories of women's liberation. Although these white women had learned invaluable skills, including the courage to withstand jailings, beatings, and death threats, from the black women, their influence in the overall movement dwindled in the mid-60s, partly because of their sexual liaisons with black men. The Waveland Conference position paper, which criticized the assumption of male superiority at work in SNCC by comparing it with white superiority, marked the move of white women out of the civil rights movement and into the women's movement. Sexual discrimination in the civil rights movement forced white activists to confront their differences from black women in a way they had not since the struggle over voting rights a century earlier. The result of this confrontation, according to many historians, was the same: white women abandoned Afro-American liberation to pursue a goal closer to home, that of a race- and class-specific women's liberation.9

Set chronologically midway between the poles of Reconstruction and civil rights, Wedding Band describes an era when lynching presented one answer to demands for equality in the south, while Harlem flowered as a mecca for black culture in the north. In the 1960s, white women and black men's sexual relations generated tension in the black community, but miscegenation as the white master's rape of his slave retains deeper historical ramifications for black women. Childress's drama, subtitled “a love/hate story in black and white,” takes place on the tenth anniversary of Julia and her white lover in the small backyard tenement to which Julia has moved after being evicted from countless other houses. Determined to get along with her nosy but well-meaning neighbors, Julia seems to have won a guarded acceptance until her lover, Herman, visits her. He has brought her a gold wedding band on a chain, and they plan to buy tickets on the Clyde Line to New York, where Julia will proudly and legally bear Herman's name. But Herman succumbs to the influenza epidemic, and in the second act he lies in Julia's bed waiting for his mother and sister to take him to a white doctor. Julia's landlady has refused to help because it is illegal for Herman to be in Julia's house, and she cannot appear to sanction Julia's immoral behavior. Herman's mother sides with the landlady in preserving respectability even at the cost of her son's life, and she will not carry him to the doctor until it grows dark enough to hide him. In the last scene, Herman returns to Julia with the boat tickets, which she refuses to take because his mother has convinced her that blacks and whites can never live together. Finally she appears to relent so that Herman can die believing that Julia, even without him, will go north.

The secondary characters, however, more than the two lovers, underscore the drama's didactic politics. They are types, but not stereotypes, and their separate dilemmas and personalities describe the injustices blacks have endured in the south. The landlady, Fanny, the neighbors Mattie and Lula, Lula's adopted son, Nelson, and the abusive white traveling salesman give the stage community a historical idiosyncrasy missing from Julia and Herman's relationship. Fanny has proudly joined the middle-class by acquiring property and exploiting her tenants (in 1918 a relatively new possibility for black women) in the name of racial uplift. As homeworkers, Mattie and Lula exist bound to a variety of semi-skilled, low-paying jobs to feed their children. Nelson, as a soldier in the newly desegregated United States army, assumes that when the war is over he will be given the rights of a full citizen, even in South Carolina. He is a forerunner of the militant youth who would later provide the impatient voice to the nascent civil rights movement of the late 1940s, and whose dreams of integration would be realized only partially in the 1960s.

These characters who inhabit Miss Fanny's backyard tenement underscore the vexed issue of difference as explored by the feminist scholars cited above. Julia's problem throughout the play is less her white lover than her reluctance to see herself as a member of the black community. Although a mostly white theater audience would see her as a different sort of heroine because of race, her black neighbors perceive her as different from them for issues more complex than skin color. She assumes that her racial transgression with Herman will make her unwelcome among the women she wishes to confide in, but her aloofness from their day-to-day interests also serves as a protective shield. In this, Julia is similar to Lutie Johnson in Ann Petry's The Street, written in 1946.10 Both characters are ostensibly defined by their unequal relations with men, but their potential for salvation lies in the larger community that depends on the stability of its women. Lutie Johnson is so determined to move off “the street” in Harlem she thinks is pulling her down that she refuses to join the community Harlem offers her, a community that in some ways defies the white society keeping it poor. Neither poor nor uneducated, Julia finds herself defying the black community by asserting her right to love a white man, but this self-assertion is, in a larger sense, a more dangerous defiance of the white community. She wants her love story to be one of individual commitment and sacrifice, but it is that only in part. Julia's refinement in manners, education, and financial independence, which are middle-class, traditionally white attributes, make her and Herman available to each other. But theirs is, as the subtitle insists, a “love/hate” story, in which interracial love cannot be divorced from centuries of racial hate.

As Wedding Band opens, Julia sleeps on her bed in the new house while a little girl enters her yard weeping about a quarter she has lost. Her mother, Mattie, chases the girl, threatening to whip her unless she finds “the only quarter I got to my name,” the quarter that was to buy the ingredients to make the candy she sells (78).11 Julia tries to sleep through this scene, but she cannot hide from either the noise or the predicaments because the coin has rolled under her porch and Mattie is trying to knock it down to get at the money. When Julia tries to escape back into her private room after giving Mattie a quarter, Fanny follows her to discern whether or not the new tenant is “quality.” In Fanny's eyes, Julia's ability to give quarters away without a second thought is an indication that her boarding-house business is improving. She gossips about the other women and says Mattie was low-class enough to have worked once washing “joy-towels” in a white whorehouse. Another neighbor, Lula, has her grown-up adopted son living with her, although the arrangement is in Fanny's eyes “'gainst nature” (80). Unmarried herself because she has to “bear the standard of the race” and “colored men don't know how to do nothin' right” (122), Fanny's notions of sexuality are as puritanical as they are ignorant. But according to the Bell Man who sold it to her, she is the first and only black woman in the country to own a silver-plated tea service, a symbol of her single-handed effort to improve the appearance of her race in the eyes of the white community.

The first white character to appear in the play is the Bell Man, a foil to Herman, who pedals dime-store merchandise in the poor neighborhood using the insidious installment system, “fifty cent a week and one long, sweet year to pay” (85). Recognizing Julia from another neighborhood, he comments sardonically that she moves a lot, invites himself into her bedroom, and bounces on the bed. “But seriously, what is race and color?” he asks. “Put a paper bag over your head and who'd know the difference” (86). When Julia chases him out with a wooden hanger, he calls her a “sick-minded bitch” because she refuses to play the historical role of the master's sexual toy, already bought and paid for on the slave market. Like the landlady, who also has pushed herself unwanted into Julia's rented room, the Bell Man objectifies Julia into a representative of her race. If for Fanny the proper black woman is to be asexual, for the salesman she is to be a body with a paper bag over her head, hiding not only her race but her existence as an individual with a face and a name. Fanny's attitude constitutes one legitimate response to centuries of white men's sexual abuse of black women. Julia's relationship with Herman should not leave her open to the insults of a traveling salesman, but in his eyes, and perhaps in Fanny's, that relationship makes her another black woman who “prefers” white men.

This scene points to the inseparability of racism and sexism, an issue that cannot be isolated from the historical relationship of the civil rights and women's movements. The fallacy of sisterhood as the word was used in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s lay in its assumption that oppression was universal. The signal white women's liberationists sent to black women echoed the one suffragists had sent to their abolitionist sisters a century earlier: your race matters less then your gender. As Bell Hooks puts it, “If we dared to criticize the movement or to assume responsibility for reshaping feminist ideas … our voices were tuned out, dismissed, silenced. We could be heard only if our statements echoed the sentiments of the dominant discourse.”12 If a black woman is to be a feminist, it appears she must cease to be black. Julia's treatment by Fanny and the salesman effects the opposite but equally insidious contradiction: she can be a member of the black race, but as such she cannot be an individual woman.

In stark contrast to the private and commodified vision of sexuality the salesman offers Julia, in which he fixes a price for his use of her body, Mattie's letter from her husband reminds Julia that human love also involves a community. Knowing that Mattie can't read the letter herself, Fanny snatches it from her and offers to read it aloud for a dime, but Mattie objects saying, “I don't like how you make words sound. You read too rough” (88). She would rather not hear the words at all than receive them through an unsympathetic voice, as the words themselves only partially represent the layers of meaning contained in the letter. Fanny would have excluded Mattie from her own letter by turning the reading of it into a business transaction. Julia's reading of it is inclusive, not exclusive, and brings out several dramatic levels in the text. One level is the author, October, writing a love letter from his ship in the middle of the ocean. He writes that he wishes he had a photograph of his wife and daughter to show the white men around him, to prove that although he looks different from them he's as good as they are and has a family to miss as much as they do. As Julia reads October's words about loving and missing his wife, Mattie responds in kind, as though he were beside her. Mattie embodies the spectator willing to suspend her disbelief; even third-hand, October's words are enough to bring him into her presence. When Julia reads, “Sometimes people say hurtful things 'bout what I am, like color and race,” Mattie replied “Tell 'em you my brown-skin Carolina daddy, that's who the hell you are” (90).

The words Julia reads remind her of what she does not have with her lover: the social legitimation of the public bond racism denies them. Julia carries October's message to Mattie in her voice; her enactment of his text and Mattie's reactions to it reconfirm Julia's own insecurity. The irony of the women's voices turning a private, written text back into a communal text that is orally conveyed is completed later in the play when we learn that October's papers do not “match up” and Mattie cannot receive his benefits. The other significant missing papers are the divorce paper legally freeing Mattie from an abusive husband and the marriage paper realizing her bond with October. All of these legal documents are, of course, controlled by white institutions hostile not only to women's needs but to the Afro-American community historically barred from them. As Susan Willis argues, the southern rural tradition that most contemporary black women writers refer back to depends on oral communication and storytelling. Willis describes this as, unlike writing, a “noncommodified relationship to language, a time when the slippage between words and meaning would not have obtained or been tolerated.”13 Because the paper containing October's letter is marked with her name, Mattie owns it and the words inscribed in it, although she can't read it. Papers she has or does not have control her life, like the laws on “the books” of South Carolina keeping Julia and Herman from marrying.

At the close of his letter, October assures Mattie that he will be home as soon as he can: “Two things a man can give the women he loves … his name and his protection … The first you have, the last is yet to someday come” (90). For Mattie, “name and protection” ensure a man's responsibility toward his wife; otherwise she just lets him use her. In other words, a woman's options are limited to a heterosexual union sanctioned by a piece of paper enforcing not the man's responsibility but her connection to him. In Mattie and October's case, however, he cannot offer her the financial protection of his war benefits because he has never legally given her his name. The bonds of sisterhood, on the other hand, offer no name, but an unspoken, and, more importantly, unwritten protection.

In response to Mattie and Lula's warm reception of her letter-reading, Julia feels compelled to confess her sin of “keeping company” with a man for ten years without being married, and Mattie and Lula prescribe folk remedies to tie him down. Learning that Herman is white, the two women are initially shocked but cannot believe that Julia really loves him. As Mattie says about whites, “They're mean, honey. They can't help it: their nose is pinched together so close they can't get enough air” (92). But when Julia insists that she feels about Herman the way Mattie feels about October, she loses her sympathetic audience. Having entered their company by reading October's letter, Julia tries to forget the class difference she had earlier imagined separated her absolutely from Lula and Mattie, but the women will not allow her love for a white man to be the same as their love for their own men. Sisterhood is threatened by a traditional loyalty to men whether the men are present or not. One thing besides race that these women hold in common is their status as single women: whether by choice or circumstance they are independent, a situation shared by the two white women who appear in the second act, Herman's mother and sister. Although independence and the complications of sustaining legal heterosexual relationships carry different valences for black and white women, especially in the Jim Crow era, the failure of these relationships for all of Childress's characters can serve as a locus of understanding between them.

In act 2, Julia must face the consequences of Herman's illness and her estrangement from her neighbors. Fanny will not permit her to call a doctor for Herman because she knows the repercussion such publicity would have on everyone. She tells Julia sarcastically, “No, you call a doctor, Nelson won't march in the parade tomorrow to go back in the army, Mattie'll be outta work, Lula can't deliver flowers …” (105). Fanny's pragmatism comes through what initially sounds like self-ishness, but when Herman wakes up and Fanny is described as “very genial” in the stage directions, addressing him as “Sir” and “Mr. Herman,” her desire not to make waves changes its tone. She dons the mask of the happy slave here, a mask of subservient self-protection echoed by Lula in scene 2 as she tells Julia how she saved Nelson from the chain gang. On her hands and knees, she says she “crawled and cried, ‘Please white folks, yall's everything. I'se nothin, yall's everything.’ The court laughed—I meant for 'em to laugh …” (125). Julia responds with pity that a lady is not supposed to crawl, but Lula reminds her that she was saving her son's life. A black woman cannot afford the luxury of ladylike behavior when her son is treated like an animal, but no one should have to crawl. Fanny and Lula recognize, and Julia is learning to recognize, that dignity finds its limits in the respect accorded it by others. The doubleness of black women's existence that gets enacted through the play, the flexibility of demeanor needed to survive in a society in which an unguarded facial expression could kill you, is what Julia thinks she can escape in the north.

White women, however, need no acting ability to get by. Herman's sister, Annabelle, does not mask her discomfort entering the strange world of Fanny's backyard, wondering aloud if the little white girl in Mattie's charge and Mattie's daughter might be her brother's illegitimate children. Although she tells Julia “you look like one-a the nice coloreds” (109) and cannot call the other woman—her figurative sister-in-law—by her name, she admits to Herman her envy of his ten-year love affair. As dominated by their mother as her brother is, Annabelle blames Herman for not showing more solidarity with her on the one occasion she invited her sweetheart home. “You didn't even stay home that one Sunday like you promised … Mama made a jackass outta Walter. You know how she can do. He left lookin' like a whipped dog” (110). Like Julia, she only wants to escape the south and go to Brooklyn to marry the sailor she loves, but, like Herman, she cannot break her mother's apron strings.

The audience discovers the desire and disappointment Julia and Annabelle share as Annabelle confesses curiosity about the other woman to Herman, but Julia's real lack of difference from her black neighbors is articulated when Herman's mother faces her and insists that she can never escape the history she shares with all black women. Julia's neighbors may perceive her difference in terms of class, but to Herman's mother, and initially to Annabelle as well, black women are indistinguishable from each other. After throwing Julia out of her own house, the mother addresses her son privately:

There's something wrong 'bout mismatched things, be they shoes, socks, or people.

Herman. Go away, don't look at us.

Herman's Mother. People don't like it. They're not gonna letcha do it in peace.

Herman. We'll go North.

Herman's Mother. Not a thing will change except her last name.

Herman. She's not like others …

(117)

The mother is perhaps typecast as an ignorant, dangerous “cracker,” but she is right that integration did not abolish racism in the north. When Herman insists that Julia is not like the others, he belies his feeling that other black women are as bad as his mother describes them. Herman's response to his mother, telling her not to look, is as naive as Julia's desire to escape her problems in New York. He cannot make her hatred disappear, and it finally reminds him of his own. As he leaves, supported by his mother and sister, Julia shouts that she will scrub her home with hot water and lye, to “clean the whiteness outta my house.” that they should leave her “to [her] own black self!” (120).

Julia's crisis is precipitated by her belated understanding that love does not allow Herman to transcend his racism. Made delirious by the pain medicine the women have been pouring down his throat, he spouts a speech he had recited at a Klan picnic as a little boy, a moment of which his mother has always been proud, although she whipped him into memorizing it: “It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty … It is a reward to be earned, a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving; and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious …” (118). Far from enacting the language of inclusion, as Julia's reading of October's letter does, this spectacle reinforces centuries of exclusion based on bigotry. The speech works two ways given the anti-German sentiment of the World War I period. First, it reveals to Julia and the audience the depth of Herman's ambivalence over his love for a black woman, and, secondly, it points to the historical specificity of prejudice. Herman's mother's embarrassment over her first name, Frieda, prompts her to introduce herself to Fanny as “Miss Thelma.” She has also planted a red, white, and blue flower garden and has posted a sign in her window announcing: “We are American Citizens.” Although the effects of racism cannot be compared to a few decades of anti-German feeling, Herman's mother's ethnic vulnerability exacerbates her own racial hatred. Julia counters the white woman's accusations of “Black, sassy nigger” with “Kraut, knuckle-eater, and red-neck,” but the name-calling effectively ends with Frieda's pronouncement that “White reigns supreme … I'm white, you can't change that” (120).

The urgency of integration as a method of combatting such engrained hatred marks Julia's turning point in the play. After Herman and his family are gone, she must face her own difficult reintegration into the community of Fanny's backyard. As the women prepare to escort Nelson to his proud participation in the soldiers' parade, the air of festivity inspires Lula and Julia to perform an impromptu strut dance to the music of Jenkin's Colored Orphan Band. They discover a small common space in the mutual performance of a “Carolina folk dance passed on from some dimly-remembered African beginning” (124). Later, to send Nelson on his way, Lula begs Julia to give him a farewell speech telling him “how life's gon' be better when he gets back … Make up what should be true” (125), whether Julia believes in her performance or not. Julia makes a speech proclaiming the abolition of the “no-colored” signs after the war and the new lives of respect awaiting Nelson and October after their return home. Although the stage directions do not specify this, according to reviews of the play, she addresses these words directly to the audience. Edith Oliver, writing for the New Yorker, called the speech “dreadful … like something out of a bad Russian movie,”14 in part because by addressing the audience Julia moves the issue of racism north of the Mason-Dixon line. Breaking the fourth wall of realism brings the drama out of its historical context of 1918 into the present and makes Julia's words about integration harder for a northern audience to ignore.

At the end of the play, Julia gives her wedding band and boat tickets to Mattie and her daughter, finally admitting that “You and Teeta are my people … my family” (132). But the gesture is compromised by its implication that the only choice for Afro-Americans is to leave their homes in the South. It was still illegal for blacks and whites to marry in South Carolina in 1966, but, despite the laws, by that time blacks had already begun to reclaim their homes. As Alice Walker argues in her essay “Choosing to Stay at Home,” one thing Martin Luther King gave his people was the possibility of returning to the South they or their parents or grandparents had left.15 The civil rights movement recreated the South as a site of militant resistance, resistance enacted equally by black women and men. Set in South Carolina and staged in Michigan and New York, Wedding Band provides a site of resistance like the political movement from which it grew. Julia's decision to stay at home, to keep her own name, makes the spectator witness to her new-found ability to celebrate, as she says, her “own black self.”16

Despite her helplessness regarding her mother, Annabelle, the literal “white sister” in the play, is a character who, like Julia and Nelson, embodies hope for the future in the South. Like the audience, she witnesses Julia's articulation of her newly-won independence. Julia's curtain speech with Herman dying in her arms escapes sentimentality only through the staging of Annabelle's mute participation in it. Julia and Herman remain inside Julia's house, after she simply but irrevocably bars Annabelle, Herman's mother, and Fanny from entering. Everyone leaves the stage except for Annabelle, who moves toward the house, listening to Julia's words to her brother. Without entering the house, to which the black woman has denied her access, she hears the other woman's words and so manages to share silently the loss of Herman without translating it into white terms. As Julia comforts Herman by describing their pretend journey north on the Clyde Line Boat together, she says, “We're takin' off, ridin' the waves so smooth and easy … There now … on our way …” (133). Julia and Herman are not on their way, but perhaps Julia and Annabelle will someday be on their way to mutual respect. I can only read these words as a directive to the audience of college students at the University of Michigan in 1966, empassioned with the growing fervor of the anti-war and women's liberation movements and prepared in their innocence to change the world. They cannot do it, Wedding Band gently but firmly insists, as gently and firmly as Julia closes her door on the other women, without a renewed commitment to civil rights for all people in the United States, in the South as well as in the North. Sisterhood, especially from the point of view of white women learning to understand black women, begins with listening, not to what one wants to hear but to what is being said.

Notes

  1. Martin Gottfried, “Wedding Band,Women's Wear Daily, 10 October 1972, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews 1972, p. 164.

  2. Douglas Watt, “Wedding Band a Pat Period Play,” New York Daily News, 27 November 1972, reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews 1972, p. 163.

  3. Hortense J. Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole Vance (Boston and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 79.

  4. Teresa de Lauretis, “Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms, and Contexts,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 1-19, and Linda Gordon, “What's New in Women's History,” in ibid. pp. 20-23.

  5. de Lauretis, “Feminist Studies/Critical Studies,” p. 14.

  6. Alice Childress, “Why Talk about That?” Negro Digest 16 (1967): 17.

  7. Angelina E. Grimke, Letters to Catherine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Addressed to A. E. Grimke, Revised by the Author (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), p. 126, cited in Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), p. 187. I am indebted to Linda Gordon for drawing my attention to the Grimke sisters' careers in anti-slavery and feminism.

  8. Angela Y. Davis, “Racism in the Woman Suffrage Movement,” in Women, Race and Class (New York: Random House, 1981), pp. 70-86. Votes for black women, interestingly enough, were not an issue for the suffragists.

  9. Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: William Morrow, 1984), pp. 296-302. See also Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979).

  10. See Linda J. M. LaRue, “Black Liberation and Women's Lib,” Trans-Action 8 (November-December 1970): 59-64, and Toni Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women's Lib,” New York Times Magazine, 22 August 1971, pp. 14-15, 63-64, 66.

  11. Ann Petry, The Street (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946).

  12. Alice Childress, Wedding Band, in 9 Plays by Black Women, ed. Margaret B. Wilkerson (New York: New American Library, 1986), pp. 69-134. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically by page number.

  13. Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), pp. 11-12.

  14. Susan Willis, Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 16. Putting words on paper maintains the power of those who control the paper. For October, the fact that he has to write a letter to communicate to Mattie, even knowing that she cannot read it, complicates his access to her. Not only does the colonist, or the white politician in this case, in this way enforce the use of his own language, but he also makes real life issues such as marriage conform to those words on paper, available for interpretation only to the literate. For the reading of paper as a carrier of colonial power, see Hugo Blanco's work on the Quechua people of Peru, cited in Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 12-13.

  15. Edith Oliver, “The Seamstress and the Baker,” The New Yorker, 4 November 1972, p. 105.

  16. Alice Walker, “Choosing to Stay at Home: Ten Years after the March on Washington,” in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), pp. 158-70.

I would like to thank Jill Dolan, Trudy Palmer, and Fiona Barnes for their thoughtful and constructive criticism of earlier drafts of this article.

Alice Childress with Roberta Maguire (interview date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9650

SOURCE: “Alice Childress,” in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 48-69.

[In the following interview, which took place in 1993, Childress discusses her attraction to and experience in the theater, as well as the feminist and racial issues explored in her work.]

[Maguire:] This afternoon in the workshop you gave you spoke a fair amount about what you've written and why you've written it, but what specifically attracted you to write for the theatre?

[Childress:] I guess I explained in the workshop that my grandmother worked seemingly, without realizing it, with the Montessori Method. We didn't have money—I think I touched on our not having money—and yet she found ways to live positively and to creatively experience life. She was very creative in thinking up things: finding swatches of sample materials, feeling tweed and satin and silk and saying what she thought of it, asking what I would make out of that if we had ten yards of it. We'd get lost in thought for a long time. We used to sit at the window and watch the snow on winter nights. Once when a man was passing by she said, “Oh, it's so cold. Poor man, look at him, his coat is open a bit. Where do you think he's going?” I said, “Home.” And she asked, “Does he have a family?” We were constructing a story, a play. I answered, “Yes, he has a wife.” “Why didn't she sew his button?” “Maybe she didn't have a button.” “Oh, they don't have a button. How many children do they have?” And I told her. And she asked, “What are their names?” We didn't call this anything, but we were creating.

Then when I went into grade school, they had plays. The teachers were always amazed at my acting and speaking, but I had been doing it with my grandmother at home. I didn't know it was anything special, you see. I knew in church—she'd take me to church—there were people who did Sunday afternoon recitations and readings, and sometimes I saw little playlets; but in school it had a name: drama, plays, make believe, and imagining. A friend of mine—I talked to her the other day; she has grown children, grandchildren—she and I made costumes and would put these improvised costumes on in each other's homes. Maybe you've seen pictures of old Russian theatre where people at holiday time—that was the aristocracy, I guess, did that—put on a play, in the house, with a curtain and the sets and all that? Well, we did that … in Harlem.

And how old were you?

Maybe from ten on. Then someone would play music; my friend's mother had a player piano. We lived in Harlem, 118th Street, between Lenox and Fifth avenues. Our people didn't let us go out and play in the street. So we had to play, right? We sang “La Paloma” and did the Spanish dance. We improvised Spanish costumes and hair combs. We were doing theatre. I remember my grandmother sometimes making newspaper curls and pinning them in my hair—to be like Alice in Wonderland. So it began with my grandmother. Her sense of drama was very strong.

She passed her creative ways on to you?

Yes. But she never said, “Be a writer, be an actress.” We'd just do it. I saw some of that in Truman Capote's lovely Christmas piece—did you ever see that story? In that I saw the same spirit: His aunt said, “Let's make cakes” and “Let's trim a tree.” It wasn't “Here's some money—go buy some ornaments—we'll put up the tree.” It became a doing. The people Capote was writing about, like my grandmother, were people who have what I always call the inborn creative spirit. People who are seekers. People who have such a good time.

So theatre has been almost second nature for you?

Yes.

Your real entree into theatre and performing was with the American Negro Theatre, right?

It was a concentration, yes.

How did the ANT come about? How did it happen? I have read in other pieces about you that you were a founding member of that company.

No, it actually started a year or two before I joined it. I think the founders, Abram Hill and Frederick O'Neal, felt there should be a serious theatre, even though it was amateur theatre—it was not Broadway or off-Broadway theatre—in Harlem. They got together actors and directors; Abram Hill was the primary director. It was a small acting company, and they obtained space in the Schomburg Library; the library was named for a black Puerto Rican historian. The ANT encouraged acting, writing, and directing. I had never had such a concentrated time of theatre study, and I hadn't been around black theatre in school, only in Harlem's churches—Salem, St. Martin's, St. Phillip's, and so many others.

While at the ANT, didn't you write plays for the group because they said, “We need plays”?

Florence happened that way. We had very little material that was written for black actors. Anna Lucasta, for example, which went to Broadway, was a white play by Philip Yordan adapted for a black cast. So when they said, “Alice, write us a one-act play,” I wrote Florence, and we performed it. But most of the time I was studying with the director, Abram Hill. He sometimes asked me to help direct by coaching, if an actor might be having a hard time with a scene. When Abram Hill had to go on with the play, he would say, “Take this actor for a while and work on this scene.” In the American Negro Theatre a part of our purpose was to have every member perform every function in the theatre at some time. We had to help stage-manage, clean the theatre, do mailings, costumes, and put in time making up actors and directing. Everything that happened in theatre, you had to do some of it. Of course, major time went into what we did best. But that was a very good experience.

Total immersion.

We learned what a director goes through, so we had a better understanding of direction. We also had to go around the neighborhood selling tickets door to door, ringing neighborhood doorbells, asking people to come to the theatre.

That's a challenge.

The only job I escaped—no one said anything and I never brought it to their attention; I consider it one of the hardest jobs in theatre—was stage-managing.

So do you think you learned most of what you know about playwriting through that experience with ANT in the 1940s?

Greatly. I was there for eleven years, four nights a week, whether I was in a play or not. You see, the artists worked in the day, and every night we had to report whether in a production or not. That's how we learned these things—makeup, lighting, props, scene design, etc.

How about the other theatres that have done your plays? How was your experience at Greenwich Mews, where Trouble in Mind was originally performed?

It was a good experience, but it was also rough. That was where I ended up directing the play. I had to go in because there was a problem with the actors; they felt the director and the play weren't working. The leading lady wasn't working, so the original director took over her role and I went in to direct. I like to direct, but not especially my own work. I like to act in my own plays even less. I acted in Florence once in an emergency. I feel it is necessary to be out front looking because onstage, in the one experience when I was acting in my play, I found myself watching the other actors, watching how the scene was going. I felt I could direct my own work better than I could play in it.

About Trouble in Mind, I've read that the production at Greenwich Mews had a happier ending than the one that is published in Lindsay Patterson's book, Black Theatre.

Yes, it had two or three endings, but I tell you, I never agreed with that happy ending. You know what happened? They wanted a happy ending where the whole cast—black and white—came together and walked out on the show together. And that was the one thing that critics—a couple of the critics—had said: “This claptrap at the end.” The producers had told me, “We're not going to do it unless you change the ending.” They didn't say that when they got the play. But by this time the actors were employed, we were close to opening—and that was when they said that we're not going to do it unless you do this ending where everyone sticks together and wins, united. I disagreed with it because I saw nothing of this sort happening anywhere in the commercial theatre. I think they thought this is what ought to happen. Wouldn't it be wonderful if people stuck together? But they weren't doing it! I couldn't wait to get my play back to undo that. I always hated myself for giving in and changing the ending.

We did Trouble in Mind in London in October 1992. One critic thought I had made changes to suit the audience. Remember the Irish American doorman? One said, “I wish she hadn't thrown in the Irish man who admired the rebellion”—he thought I did it just a while ago because we were in London. They were having all these demonstrations and explosions and all at the time of the play's opening in 1992. Eight bombings that week. But that was the original script! Still, they thought, “Ah, you've come to England so you're going to put the Irish thing in.”

In the original company at the Mews the actor playing the part of the doorman, though, did want some changes. He was threatening to go unless a certain line was changed. “Okay, I'll change that line,” I said. Then he wanted something else, “Or I'll go,” he said. I said, “That's up to you.” I wasn't going to participate further in “We'll close this show if you don't write this” and “We'll leave if you don't do this.” A changed ending was enough.

In that first production they felt, “We're giving you the opportunity to do this—a black protest play. And we're the ones putting it on, and you're going to do what we say about its outcome.” Ever after that I resented that change. The producers got very quiet when a couple of critics said, “A clap-trap kind of ending,” or something like that. In London, I rewrote the ending again. I changed it some from the published ending.

You don't end it with Wiletta reciting Psalm 133?

I did, but I had a little scene where Manners, the director, came back out, and he had one last ploy to pull to get her to do it his way, and she didn't, and he just sat there and watched her go through this thing she did at the end. So you did feel, “Who knows, maybe they'll come together.” That was not the happy or unhappy ending. It was more open-ended. People always want things to end their way on racial things. Then, at the Greenwich Mews, they got more worried about outcome with an interracial cast.

Who is “they”?

Producers! At the Greenwich Mews, they felt, “We want to show a positive image to the public of black and white working together, so they should all come together and say, ‘None of us are going to work unless—.’” I haven't known of any Broadway company where they all walked out because some actress or actor felt a certain way. I totally disbelieved the ending they wanted.

Especially when it's set at a particular historical moment when I don't think anybody would have.

I don't think they'd do it even now. We haven't gotten there yet. But I have heard of actresses of many different races rebelling. Sometimes they'd have to fire someone or just quietly replace her—“Get rid of this nuisance.”

Were those stories the basis for Trouble in Mind?

My experience acting in Anna Lucasta on Broadway contributed a lot. I based Wiletta on Georgia Burke, someone who had also played in Anna Lucasta. Georgia Burke was a person like Wiletta who went along, went along, went along. Some days she said, “I'm tired of it.” And I thought, “She has the spirit that could be Willetta's.” She didn't go through what I wrote, but she had the right spirit. So the character of Georgia Burke became very influential in the writing of Trouble in Mind.

Also on the subject of rewriting, I wanted to ask you about Wedding Band. The stage version, as I read it, focuses so much on the backyard community, while the television version doesn't. You've talked a little bit about this before—that when you go to another medium, the focus will change. But so much more emphasis was on the relationship between Herman and Julia in the television version, as opposed to Julia finding her “black self,” which dominates the stage version. Were the reasons for the revisions you did for the television production entirely because of the medium?

Some of it was Joe Papp, who was directing the television version: “Yeah, I want this new scene, I want it,” he would say. He was spending a gang of money—and plus, Joe Papp wanted more than anything in the world to be a director. He produced Wedding Band because he wanted to direct it. When we were getting ready to begin rehearsals for the production at the Public Theater in 1972, I suggested three or four different directors. He said, “Unacceptable. Unacceptable”—and these were good directors. I said, “Joe, I don't personally know any more directors.” I was selecting directors who had directed readings of it; one had directed the Chicago production. He said, “I want you to direct it.” Joe wanted to step in, and he figured—you'll still have the play. So that's what happened. That explains some of the changes made in the production at the Public and in the one on television: Papp wanted them. There's a book called Enter Joe Papp. The author, who sat in on Public Theater rehearsals, says that when Joe walked in on the show to direct, it was never the same again. It broke my heart to see Joe change the direction of our production. You know when he came in? He did not come in until we were into the third or fourth night of previews with a standing ovation every night. He said, “If it's going to be like this, I want to be in it. So I'm going to direct.” Again, you've got a whole cast sitting there. You can say, “I won't allow it,” or you can keep plodding on and open. It was not a mistake to go on and open.

One thing Joe Papp had was a magnificent perseverance: if he said he was going to put it on television, he would. He was doing three plays on television in 1974. So he said, “Which do you want, first, second, third?” I said, “It doesn't matter.” He said, “Always go first, get in early.” I said, “Why?” He said, “In case they cancel, yours will have been done.” But when it got closer he said, “I can't put you first. I'll put you second.” Do you know, they canceled the third one. I heard they really wanted to cancel after the first because Sticks and Bones was controversial material. He would handle controversial material when others wouldn't, and he respected my writing. But then he comes in to direct—he's been in on I don't know how many productions as a director—he would get lost in too many effects; sets—he loved them. In Wedding Band, he thought, “I'll reconstruct Charleston.” But if he said something was going to be done, he would do it. And he didn't care about being criticized for doing “controversial work.” What got in his way as a director was that, in my opinion, Joe was stronger than the play characters; they could not have their way with him. They began to take on his way of thinking and doing. But—I loved Joe's fearlessness. So many plays would never have seen a stage anywhere if he had not lived and become the mentor of new creative ideas. He was not afraid to defy spoken or unspoken rules.

With Wedding Band, you said it was due to go to Broadway, and I've read that a number of Broadway producers had taken options out on it for a number of years but that nobody had the nerve finally to do it.

Some of them, I think, had the nerve, but not the money. It frightened them because some of the people they went to for money said, “What about that ending? What about this? I want a happy ending and I want this and I don't want Herman to die.” Joe told me, “You know, we'd be on Broadway, Alice, if it wasn't Julia's play—if it became more of Herman's play.” Then he began making it neither one nor the other—playing both of them back and forth evenly where I wrote a starring role for Julia. He felt the ending had to be changed to make it a Broadway show: “If he doesn't die, he leaves her. It must be his decision. She goes north or she doesn't and they break up, but it's his final decision.”

You see, white leading ladies have this to contend with, too. You know how they say there aren't many leading ladies, unless you go way back to A Doll's House when the woman made a sole decision—then she was a leading lady. Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes—the woman, for better or worse, is the lead. But in a black-white situation, if the woman is the decision maker as in Wedding Band, it is assumed the man has lost his manhood … because what happened was her decision.

Do you think we could get Wedding Band done on Broadway today? Have we come far enough that we could do that?

I don't know. At the time I wrote it I didn't think in those terms. I thought if a play was well crafted and done well that it would succeed. You know how people laugh at a well-made play? You don't say that when you go to have a suit made, or when you go to have a heart operation, that you don't want anything well made. It's just with plays. But they also have a criterion with women: “Do you know how to construct a play?” Lillian Hellman demonstrated: “I'm going to show you, I'm out there with the best of them, and I'll stand up.” Then they began to ridicule something being well made. It was like the old thing where black voters, when they gained the right to vote in the South, had to take an exam; you had to pass the exam before you could go and cast your vote. The examiners would read two pages of the Constitution and say, “Now, explain what that means.” Answer: “It means you don't want me to vote.” Well, with women it meant “You can't participate.” Either it's too well made or it's not made well enough. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

You have said that Broadway is an important measure of a playwright's progress in the theatre, not because of the content or form of the works, but because they're more regularly reviewed and so become universally known.

Also they make money; I didn't put that in. You're financially recognized. If you put a work of stature out there and it also makes money, that's international progress.

At some time, at some point, do you wish to have something on Broadway?

Oh, sure. I've also turned down some things where they've said we could go to Broadway with it. Either I didn't see how they were going to do it, or as they talked they were really saying, “Let's don't do this. Let's take your general idea and make it something else.” I don't feel precious about writing. If you can show me a scene is too slow and it's not working—I have given in and conceded and rewritten. But I don't want to go to Broadway and end up doing what I did on Trouble in Mind—changing the ending when I knew I was doing the wrong thing.

I knew I was doing the wrong thing, but at the same time I shakily felt, “Maybe I could be wrong.” When everyone around you is saying, “This is wrong,” you can grow uncertain. They may be right—or wrong. After a while, you may say, “Okay, let's do it,” when you feel it's wrong. And then you feel maybe that you'll never do what you want to do because something's always wrong with what you want to do. But I know better than that. I'm not alone. I've known of many writers who have told me they regretted making changes—people with hits. You can feel that way even though a show is running—mad as hell because the main thing you truly believed in has been changed. When you hear “We're not going to do it” and “We're going to close down early because of one thing,” and all the actors have studied and learned their parts, you don't know if you have the right to snatch the play. I made no money on Trouble in Mind. We had standing room only, but I made about forty dollars a week as a writer. But we were trying for rep—our reputation. We were very idealistic about all we'd done … and we were happy for trying our best and having good audiences.

How about today? How hard is it for you to get a good production of one of your plays today?

It's hard. I may find out just how hard in the next season because there are a couple of plays that people want to do. There are a lot of people who have wanted to do productions in basements and lofts and places around of work of mine that hasn't been done before. But I now want a better first production of my work. When you know what it needs—it doesn't have to be that expensive, but it has to have basic things, what it really needs.

You've said you prefer writing plays, even though it is so hard to get something good done, to writing anything else—although you've written novels for both adults and children, and you've written essays and newspaper columns. Why do you prefer writing plays?

Because I feel at home—and it's more of a challenge. You have to get an awful lot of things going in a play. In the theatre, it is so very different from writing a novel. You need a producer, you need the house, you need the lighting designer. Simplicity is what you need very much. Sometimes I feel that if I produce, direct, write—some writers have done the whole thing themselves—that it'll be right. It's not a matter of a surefire hit or anything, but you're sure fired up to looking at what you meant it to be. To see that work.

So you're saying that the collaborative aspect of the theatre can at times be a frustrating experience?

Yes. You may have people in a group who don't like each other. I can't tell other people's truths for them, but a writer once told me that for his first play he had a name star whose requirement was that the writer never be allowed in the theatre during a rehearsal. The writer felt wretched. The actor wanted to freely dabble with lines. They had a good run. The writer said he felt a little better when he was able to take his wife and child—they had been very poor—on a grand vacation.

The theatre has made artists crawl. There seems to be a growing resentment against the first creative source. When you write a play, the producer may say, “It's mine now. What do you think I'm putting it on for? You've expressed yourself. Now I have to be expressed, too.” And meanwhile the director says, “I see this play another way.” Sometimes you can convince them otherwise, but you go home weary.

When you do write a play, and you get it to a theatre and rehearsals begin, how much of your play is completed?

Oh, mostly you're there all through rehearsals and the previews, and sometimes there are changes made after opening, during the actual run. But certainly, by opening night, the critics have either cheered or jeered or it's surviving a while on its own. But you're working and should be on call to work. A great director wants you on hand through the whole rehearsal period. Sometimes he'll come out and say, “I can't do anything with this” or “It needs something else.” So you have to be there to correct your own errors, or to make a scene more playable, or to squeeze down and cut for time.

On some occasions have you profited when you've brought the play to production, seen when it's up there that it's just not working, and then you reworked it?

If it's not working and you have to rework it—that's one problem. But the difficult thing is if someone says, “I just want the man to be more the lead.” It's not because something is wrong with the play, it's because society would like the male role to be the main one. Many actresses complain about Hollywood films because they have so few good lead parts. They try to equalize roles when possible. Or else they try to portray the downtrodden woman. But the stand-up woman—the winner—they consider that unwomanly … or perhaps hard to sell. A serious woman character is harder to sell than a serious man.

That brings me to something else that I wanted to ask you about. You write extraordinary moments in ordinary—real—women's lives. But it seems to me that when I've gone back and read what critics have written about your plays, their comments suggest that they have missed that.

Yes. Sometimes they deliberately miss certain things. “We like your writing, but this is too political,” when we're living in the middle of politics every day! You turn on the news: business is going to fail—whatever—but don't mention that, because it makes people unhappy. In Wedding Band, I included the Calhoun speech that Herman gives. Those were actually Calhoun's words. Not one critic has ever mentioned that scene when Herman gives the John C. Calhoun speech. They say, “Herman creates a scene in the backyard.” They never have mentioned the speech. Many many many many reviews of Wedding Band, not one has opened his mouth—“It's a racist speech that he was forced to learn”—they have not mentioned it in any review. “There's a difficulty in the backyard when he's ill,” they say. They just put the conflict between Julia and Herman's mother; they do not say it's triggered by the speech he gave to the group. They don't even mention his father's membership in the Klan, the Knights of the Gold Carnation.

That's difficult to understand.

I associate that with a certain disapproval: “Why do you do things like that?” I think I had read somewhere—I think I still have old clippings from many years ago—about some man who used to have his child read racist speeches (like some skinheads or people in the Klan today) at a picnic. Children don't know what they're saying. Grown-ups rehearse them, give them the speech and a sign to carry. But I never saw any mention of this speech in a review. I kept looking, but nothing. “A turbulent scene in the backyard” was what they usually said. However, many productions were done in regional areas, colleges, where I did not see the presentation. I've never seen two productions that looked the same. All have been different.

I remember also in one review of Wedding Band the critic talked about “overwriting.” In that play, which strikes me as such a tight play, there's no room for overwriting.

There were certain things they didn't want discussed; that was the “overwriting.” Then I felt, “We just need to be clearer.” Sometimes I would try to clarify and clarify.

They just weren't prepared to get it?

A writer told me once, “Alice, you have to tell them what you're going to do, then you have to say, ‘Now I'm doing it,’ and then you have to say, ‘Now I'm finished with it,’ in order for them to say, ‘Oh, that's what you meant.’” You know, the kind of writing where Lula would come out and say, “Boy, I got mad when I heard him give that old John C. Calhoun speech in the backyard—that racist who said so-and-so.” That way you explain the play. But if you have Herman just do it and his mother says he won this money, they may not get it.

So you do not have too high a regard for critics?

To the contrary, the best critical writing shows the power of observation, the ability to see and hear something and then analyze it. Critics are also writers. We only wish more critics had that keen power of observation, no matter if it is pro or con. Critics too often develop a flippant attitude toward writers, to play to their own audiences. There is a laxity in newspapers; often they will hire someone with no experience or ability to evaluate theatre. We speak of a “good” or “bad” review—meaning only that a critic liked or didn't like a play. Good criticism is really worthwhile reading when it shows an understanding of theatre.

When you start working on a play, how much of it do you know right off the bat? Do you know how it's going to end? Do you outline first?

I usually know my opening and my ending fairly well. I also know the story. When I get to how to do it, then there's a lot of outlining that has to be done—how to make it dramatically move, keep pushing forward—besides getting the story down. That goes for books, too. I usually know the opening and the closing—where I'm going, and some idea of how to get there. Even though you know the story, you can't just “story” and go on through. It has to have its ups, its downs, its different levels, the why as well as the how of it.

Does a character ever start to take over when you're writing?

Yes, characters often take over. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not. Right now I have one character running off with a book because she flows—she's not the lead—and your own common sense tells you it can't be that way. I'll have to rein her in.

I'm wondering, in Mojo, if perhaps the character of Irene might have taken over when you were writing that play. She is such a strong presence.

She did in a way, because she was very real. I met her in several people, including a little of myself. She flowed. I find a deep sense of romance in the lives of women like Irene that is seldom talked about. A black woman is seldom considered a romantic figure if she is strong. Irene was passionate as well as strong. She felt she couldn't afford to love. So often black women are seen as defeated, unloved figures—good at taking the hard knocks of life, stereotypically stalwart. Irene was not that. She sacrificed too much and came to realize she had been unfair to herself—by assuming a false hardness which was not her own.

Do your plays, then, take twists and turns in places you didn't really expect?

Yes, particularly in places where things won't move according to your specifications. As people and events come to life on the page, they escape your mind-set and begin to seek their own direction.

Can you think of a particular play where it went a lot differently than you originally expected it might go? In Wedding Band, for example, did you know Herman was going to die?

Yes. Some people saw that as his defeat. I don't like to see birth or death as defeat. We live in a world where we say “under God this and this” and religions teach absolute faith in God, and yet we are terrified by the idea of death. We speak of but don't believe in the happy hereafter. When a lead character dies the play is considered “tragedy.” I ask, “Are we going to our just rewards, or not?” However, I wasn't thinking of any rewards before or after death when I was writing Wedding Band. Even in his death throes, Herman had the strength of determination. He didn't “give up” and die.

I figure they are very strong people who try to live true to themselves up to the end. Herman had unfinished business to complete. Sometimes it's even hard for an actor to see that's why he came back to Julia's, to say: “I should have handled our lives another way.” This is what he's saying: “I'll leave my deathbed to undo this.” He is not saying, “I wish I had this to do over again”; he said, “I was wrong, I shouldn't have done that to you.” We also have to understand his strength. He'd be a pretty weak man to walk out on his mother and sister—they had no way to make a livelihood. For him to walk off and say, “I'm in love, too bad about you, but I borrowed your money and you don't have any left.” As he told Julia, “I owe them something. I used their money.” He was talking at a time when commitment really meant something; one didn't walk out on a mother and sister—and leave them penniless. And where was he going? To a relationship outside of the law—the illegal relationship with Julia.

I thought Herman was a strong person. Julia thought so, too, at the end when she gave him a peaceful scene. She made him forget about dying. She said, “Look at the friendly people on the shore, they're waving goodbye, and they ask us to ‘Come back,’ but we're going, going, we're going.” She meant we're going to be free of heartache and stress. She made a happy death for him. We're used to people who just drop their heads to one side and say, “Carry on, dear” or something. But Julia and Herman kept fighting to the end. He wasn't quite dead when the curtain came down. She said, “Yes, yes, at last we're living for ourselves.” When she closed the door against others and said, “No one comes in my house. Go away, win the war, represent the race, go to the police. Do what you have to do,” she's giving them their freedom, not hers. Herman and Julia were arguing all through the play and loving each other, but they were arguing about their condition of life—their helplessness.

Julia, by getting back to her beginnings, her heritage, is able to overcome that helplessness.

Yes.

Herman's acknowledging his own heritage also enables Julia and Herman to forge an honest relationship.

Look at Herman's mother at the end—at the very end. She says, “I've tried but I can't understand it.” That's about as honest as she could get. “You see me standing here before you.” In that line she means she's defeated. “I stand here and just tell you—I don't know what this is about”; because she sees it was a huge thing with Herman. Julia wasn't just his little fun-girl. That was common, having a woman on the side—whatever color she was. Men would “sow their wild oats,” but he was making it a life-and-death issue. There's always been good response to the play, even though there's been this trouble about how it ought to end. Producers want things solved. That's safer ground. As phony as it would be, I think they'd prefer the mother or Annabelle to come in and take Julia in, as if to say, “We've been wrong.” Even kindly white supremacy is made of “sterner stuff.”

In the stage production, you do have Annabelle come close to Julia's house and listen to Julia's words to Herman, which you didn't have in the television production.

I felt that was as far as they could go before it became unbelievable to me. I'm not sure they would have gone that far. They might have remained at home and shut the door, but I could go that far as a writer. I could believe that much, but I couldn't believe it wrapped up nicely and neatly and them having a little chat together. Papp said, “We could have had a hit show.” He said, “People want to feel good about something.” I think I am forced to write things that people are disturbed about, annoyed about. The state of society is such that it makes observers feel frightened when things are not wrapped up. Take A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. They changed the ending in the picture. Oh, they changed it here, here, here, and here, so much—and I wrote the screenplay! They did two endings, one where he didn't show up at his drug rehab place—that's my ending. They did another one, him showing up and them hugging one another. I wanted the actor—Paul Winfield—to look straight out at the audience at the end of the film and say, “Benji, I'm waiting for you.” I felt that covered any Benji anywhere. That was what I meant. No, they had to have the real Benji running around the corner, running and then hugging. I was moved by it but didn't believe it. They had other places like that all through the script—they were changing meanings. The script was weakened—to make the leads more lovable. They did do good things also. But they were going to ban the movie anyway, despite all the changes; there were two hearings on banning it even after it was weaker. People said, “Who'd want to write about drug addiction in kids?” That was seventeen or eighteen years ago. Some asked, “Why write about a child drug addict when there are so many positive things?” I saw them in the street. Now it is safer to write and produce scripts about children addicted to drugs.

Most people don't want their children to become writers. They want them to be doctors and lawyers or to become president of something. They don't say, “I want my child to grow up to be a writer.” African American writers commonly write in defiance of society. If they make some big bucks happen, someone says, “Well, well, well, I always knew he had it in him.”

With the screenplay of A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich you had less control than in the Greenwich Mews production of Trouble in Mind or the Public Theater production of Wedding Band, didn't you?

According to our guilds and unions, the playwright is in a stronger position than the screenwriter. No one has the right to change your stage play. But your screenplay or a TV play, they can do what they want after you sign the contract. Banks lending film money do not want a writer or actor to have the final say. The producer is the one who borrows the money. The producers are money-responsible for everything. They get the first draft out of the first writer and the second draft out of the second writer, and so on, and on.

It also seems that in your plays and in A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich that you've always been a bit ahead of the curve and people have said, “Why are you writing about this now?”

Well, I didn't conceive of A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. I wrote some short pieces on kids on drugs, and Ferdinand Monjo, an editor at Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, called me up. I met Ferd, who was originally a playwright at New Dramatists. He said, “I read a piece you wrote about a drug-addicted child and another piece you wrote about a woman whose son was drug-addicted called ‘Happy Mother's Day.’ Why don't you just write a young adult book about it?” I said, “Why should it be a young adult book? It seems to me it should be an adult book that may be about a child.” He said, “It's a young adult book because I'm vice-president of the young adult division.” He was a wonderful editor.

How do you think the state of the American theatre is now, in general, and for blacks in particular, in comparison, let's say, with the 1960s?

Just more, I guess, could mean better; but first, there aren't enough plays out there talking about black events, and second, when you put it all together for something considered black theatre, there are very few confrontational plays between blacks and whites. You have black family plays, where blacks confront each other: “Yeah, they'll buy that. Let's see you folks fight it out,” you see. A Raisin in the Sun was about a mother-son relationship—somehow she's stopping him from being a man. Take the film—and it wasn't a black film necessarily—Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which they keep showing and showing and showing. At the bottom line of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Katharine Hepburn tells off the black mother about her racism. The message becomes “I can accept this, but you, the black woman, are the racist.” What black people do to each other is very popular. What whites are doing to us and each other is dramatically a black-white conflict. It has been going on since long before the Civil War. It is an uncomfortable subject.

Do you think there's some point where we can get beyond that?

Those who insist will push it along, and then maybe someone's work will be done. But you take the common TV stories we have—the cop stories where they have a black and a white sidekick working together—they might have a little point once in a while, but mainly they catch a black criminal and then they catch a white criminal. They think that makes a positive, balanced statement: “We're getting along.” We're not, though. This is the problem. Society is getting more and more divided because we lie about the situation. Anything that deals with true conflict between the races leads to discomfort for those selling products. The commercial sponsor! The contradictions—all this goes to make up the drama. Today someone asked what I thought of realism. What I should have said is, realism can be worrisome at its best or trite at its worst.

We're not yet done with realism in the theatre, then, in your opinion?

No. We don't allow realism to gallop ahead. It's always, “This isn't quite the right time for that approach” or “We want to accomplish just a little bit.” This is what I say in Trouble in Mind. You have the director and others saying, “If we could just make people feel lynching is wrong.” I thought, “If they didn't know that was wrong when they entered the theatre, we're dealing with idiots.”

And we're in trouble.

In deep trouble.

So we probably haven't gotten to the point where the label “controversial” could be dropped from your work?

Not yet, but it gets better. Controversy only means disagreement. I know what drama feels like. It goes right to the root of the subject. Why couldn't Joan of Arc ask some nice gentleman to lead her soldiers for her? This way she could avoid controversy—and drama. Why did she have to run out there? What's she going to win? When her headstrong action happens onstage, we say, “Damn, that's drama.”

In light of that, which playwrights do you think have influenced you or taught you, or which playwrights have you particularly admired?

I wasn't really reading that much of the work of other playwrights when I was first writing. I just went in and did it. I didn't think, “Now I want to write plays.” It was just something I did, something my grandmother and I had started. I began reading other playwrights long after I had started writing plays. The writers I later read and admired included Lillian Hellman and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar wrote wonderful books and poetry. I find you can watch a dancer or listen to a piece of music and be inspired to write a play. I've been more moved to write in a certain way by things like that rather than by other playwrights. A sunset or a rainstorm or sudden stillness may tap the creative spirit.

If you had a canon of black plays, if you had to construct that right now, what would you include?

Do you mean plays that have been written or plays that you think should have been written?

Plays that have been written.

I don't know, because I've enjoyed lots of plays. They don't have to be what I think in terms of controversy. I've enjoyed the work, but I feel there's a certain angle that never gets there. Take Purlie Victorious. What was his victory? It's sort of a comedic-serious play. It's about Purlie getting the Bethel Baptist Church, winning it for his people away from a man with a slave-master mind. At the end of the play, they get the Bethel Baptist Church, but master's son gives it to them. Purlie had told the people he fought for and won it; then they find out it is given to them by the son of the oppressor, who becomes liberal enough to give it to him. They said, “But Purlie, you didn't win it,” and he said, “Well, I should have. It should have been that way. That's what should have been.” The white audience feels relief that master's son gave it to him and so won for the blacks. I'm talking about very good writers, but somehow the plays stop short on the question of black-white conflict. What about A Soldier's Play? What happens at the end of that? This isn't saying it's not true, but we are led to believe that a white man has killed a black man. Right? In the end we find out it was a black who killed another black. In the film a black and a white man go off together with a sense of admiration and understanding for one another because they had uncovered this black-on-black murder. In each play, what happens is the blacks must criticize themselves.

I had one producer tell me—a black producer—“No more confrontational plays—we don't want them.” Now, how does this enter regional theatre—not only regional but semipro theatre? It has to do with grantsmanship and success. What kind of message is found in produced controversy? Can you get a grant for a militant play? I don't even call militant what some people call militant. If you disagree with something, it isn't necessarily militant. I call militant an outright fighting to win—that kind of militancy. But they call your attitude too militant if you question the status quo.

Theatre is often described as the most conservative of the art forms. Do you agree with that?

It's more conservative than it used to be. It's moving more toward conservatism. Of course, there were things considered controversial, such as Nora slamming the door in A Doll's House. That was very controversial in its time because then the audience said, “What are you saying? A discontented woman should walk out and slam the door? This is marriage?” It was objectionable. A woman did this. Ibsen might have known someone who did this in life. Or maybe he was saying she ought to walk out. A man saying it is more acceptable. The woman could not champion herself as freely.

Women have rarely had the opportunity to be the strong characters in drama. Could you picture Oedipus as the mother's play, with Oedipus's mother playing the full lead instead of Oedipus? Would he put his eyes out and all of this kind of thing about having been his mother's lover? Perhaps she would not put hers out because she could not show the passion and intellectual sensitivity that Oedipus had. What about the end of Oscar Wilde's Salome—“Kill that woman!” Again, the woman becomes the villain even though a man ordered and had John the Baptist's head severed. The man had promised the female dancer anything she wanted. She wanted the head of John the Baptist. A man had given his word to reward her with whatever she desired. He had another man's head chopped off, brought it on a platter, and presented it to the female dancer. His word and pledge were intact. I don't believe his honor. If he was honorable I felt he would say, “For the first time in my life I will break my word; I'm not going to decapitate this innocent.” She becomes the villain because he cuts it off, and then he says, “Now I'm going to kill you.” So it is always, always an argument with a woman figure as evil or conniving or weak or overbearing.

Have we gotten very far beyond that?

Do you know how long it took for the Catholic Church to change its mind about the burning of Joan of Arc? Wasn't it about four hundred years? Then they made her a saint. It was a big change, but it took a long, begrudging time.

Yes, but as a priest once told me, for the Catholic Church, a century is hardly any time at all. Why do you think the American theatre is more conservative now?

Reining in is the last lashing of the wounded lion's tail. The American theatre is in trouble with minorities and women, I think. You take the superpatriots. I haven't written about this, and neither am I going to. But you take the flag-waver, in Congress or wherever: “America, America, America—I love America, and we're not going to let these blacks, foreigners, and women and whatnot run this beloved country.” These are the people who have foreign bank accounts! No matter how hard they wave the flag, I ask, “Why'd they go and put their money in foreign banks where superpatriots stash away secret accounts?” If the country goes down they plan to have another place to go and spend. I wonder what kind of “patriot” could plan such a thing. If you put this in a play, they'd say, “Now, did you have to bring that up? It makes people uncomfortable, especially people you have to go and ask for money.” Not that words correct situations. They're not going to stop doing anything because we make mention—but I feel that's the drama we're living. I don't say let's go out and save anything—the worst name you can call anyone in America is a do-gooder, right?

So you're writing what you see?

I write what I see, hear, and feel. I think this is the only realism that some fear. I'm not writing about somebody sitting on the front porch knitting an afghan. Power people really don't seek a woman president unless she's Margaret Thatcher, who can agree with men first.

If it's the last lashing of the lion's tail … ?

What they mean—I do believe it came out of Africa—is the lion is most vicious when it's desperately fighting for its life.

That could be a good sign, couldn't it?

Oh, sure. There was anger like that over the outcome of the Civil War. The fury of the losers. But then the wounded nation went on. If we didn't have it then, we'd have had a Civil War later. It was something inevitable. It wouldn't have happened when it did if it wasn't so dividing to have two USAs, a North and a South. Lincoln had to sign for emancipation to avoid dividing the country into two parts. It didn't go on mainly about slavery.

The historical points are always very important for you in your plays. What role does the research play in your writing?

Drama is the controversy of life, the contradictions in history. If you write about characters living at a particular moment, you have to know something about the times in which they live. Research keeps opening up for you more of the things that people must have experienced. In Wedding Band, Julia was a dressmaker because that was one of the honorable things a woman could do as a lady in Charleston in 1918. Woman's work, in general, was for common women—washwoman, governess. A few could work as a waitress. A seamstress could work in her own home. Very often women needed money and didn't want to work outside the home. Some women made candy, like Mattie, or cooked and delivered cakes, etc. But there was a certain honor in being a dressmaker or caring for small children.

Julia Augustine, when she's with Lula, the next morning before the parade—she and Lula do this strutting, a “dimly remembered” African folk dance.

Yes.

How would Julia, who initially seems to have no remembrance of tradition, ancestry, and heritage, know that dance?

It is passed down. Julia follows Lula's example. How would I know it? I know it from watching my grandmother. This is how people just pick it up. It was not hard to do. It is an easy thing. It was commonly done. You can't stop in a historical play and account for everything—but it was not an unusual dance for working-class women. Hands akimbo (on your hips), hold your head high, and dance the other down.

I guess it would be harder for her not to know it.

Yes. If they had a birthday party, then might jump up and start that dance. Some people would watch it and clap—others would jump in the middle of it. It was recognizable. See it once and it's remembered. However, some danced better than others.

Do you ever write with a particular actor or actress in mind? I think about Ruby Dee in particular.

No. Sometimes I might picture someone in something, but I usually picture the characters and not actresses. I picture people I know or people I have heard of. Once the actor or actress is playing the role, sometimes I rewrite based on the performer, or change something because I see what would be better for that interpretation.

When you write a play, do you picture an audience? Who do you write for?

When I write, I see the stage. I don't think of an audience looking at the play. I'm taking the place of an audience. I also see the characters, and sometimes I see them in their right places; if it's a home scene, I see them in their real home, that room, etc. This is for character development. I don't write for one particular audience, but I do write for actors, from the perspective of a writer-actress-director, according to the needs of the moment—that is, when we are in rehearsal, which is rewriting time again.

How would you describe your writing process? Do you write in longhand or on a computer?

I do both—longhand and computer. At times I do longhand and then put it on the computer. Sometimes for what I'm writing I decide the computer would be better. Regular typing I no longer do. You can't correct easily. You can correct longhand faster than typewritten copy.

As for my writing process, I generally follow the advice I give newer writers: try not to polish up front. You have worked yourself to death. Keep going, keep going. If it's poorly written, too bad. Keep going. When you have an end, you've got something whole. Then rewrite, rewrite. Polished incomplete things wear you out.

Some writers sit down and write every day, regardless. I am not that disciplined. It is something I positively envy. Early on when I was writing, I didn't have the opportunity to be disciplined, to write at a set time. I had to work; I had to take care of my daughter. Many women writers are wearing so many hats—they work, have to care for the children, pick them up from school—they write when they can. Discipline can come with grants. For me, the appointment to the Radcliffe Institute from 1966 to 1968 was wonderful because then I could close a door and write. Like most women, I didn't have a workroom of my own at home. Today I write at night, in the day, in the middle of the night. It would be nice to have set hours like 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but that's a dream thing. When it hits me, I do it.

Zita A. Dresner (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4064

SOURCE: “Alice Childress's Like One of the Family: Domestic and Undomesticated Domestic Humor,” in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 221-29.

[In the following essay, Dresner identifies rebellion as the link between the humor of the white suburban housewife and the African-American domestic worker.]

What has been termed “domestic” or “housewife” humor emerged in post-World War II America in response to the back-to-the-home antifeminist sentiment engendered by the political conservatism that considered any threat to the status quo a sign of creeping Communism. Characterized as a body of humorous writing in which the autobiographical persona of a harried, white middle-class housewife describes her frantic and often unsuccessful efforts to cope with life in the slow lane—in the family and home-centered environment of the new postwar suburbs—the domestic or housewife humor popularized by such writers as Shirley Jackson, Jean Kerr, and Erma Bombeck has been castigated by some feminist critics for encouraging women to accept the home as their proper place in the culture and for supporting the notion that domesticity (in the pre-modern sense of the word) offers women adequate outlets for satisfying their needs and utilizing their talents. My own work on domestic humor, however, has led me to a different conclusion—that this humor functions covertly in a number of ways to inspire rebelliousness.

This rebelliousness is the major link between the humor written from the perspective of the white suburban housewife and the humor of Alice Childress's Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life, published in 1956 after appearing as columns in Paul Robeson's Freedom and the Baltimore Afro-American. Developed in sixty-two “conversations” between Mildred, “a sassy, defiant day worker” (Harris DLB 67) and her friend, Marge, a neighbor and sister domestic worker whose voice is never actually heard, Childress presents Mildred as an undomesticated domestic—a black woman who refuses to feel degraded or to allow herself to be denigrated because her work is what others would consider menial, who fights for civil rights and for her own right to be respected. Because Mildred, as a single, black working-class woman doing domestic work in white women's homes, represents a very different persona from that of a white middle-class housewife doing domestic work for her own family in her own home, important differences exist between Childress's work and that of the white “domestic” writers, but the humor that emerges from these two angles of vision also has a number of provocative commonalities in spite of the different significations of the adjective “domestic” used to describe it.

Structurally, the books of housewife humor by Kerr and Bombeck, like Childress's book, reveal their origins as columns in newspapers and magazines. They consist of short chapters in the form of brief, informal disquisitions on a variety of topics pertaining mainly to the speaker's role as housewife or domestic worker but also to her place in the world. In Kerr's and Bombeck's collections, those pieces that do not directly deal with childcare, household duties, and the role of wife tend to concern the treatment of women in American popular culture—in particular, the way in which the media manipulate stereotyped and idealized feminine images to make women, in general, and housewives, in particular, feel inadequate, guilty, and docile. Self-help books, advertisements directed to women (especially for household products, cosmetics, and apparel), and self-proclaimed experts on such topics as women's psychology, husband-wife relationships, and child-rearing are especially taken to task and satirized by these humorists—not only for pomposity and falsity, but, more important, for undermining women's sense of autonomy and fostering an anxious dependence on “society's” measures of what constitutes self-worth. This humor, therefore, encourages readers to question society's model of woman's image and roles.

In Childress's book, the conversations that do not directly recount Mildred's experiences as a domestic worker often concern the graver social issues surrounding the racial struggles of the 1950s, especially anti-Negro violence and blatant discrimination. “Ridin' the Bus,” for example, deals with the Jim Crow laws in the South; “What Does Africa Want?” discusses the burgeoning black liberation movements in Africa; and “A New Kind of Prayer” is a plea for the end of racial violence. In addition, Childress selects topics that enable her to satirize those of both races, black and white, who exhibit hypocrisy, ignorance, pretentiousness, or greed. “Ain't You Mad?” and “Northerners Can Be So Smug” are two examples of many pieces that illustrate this point. In “Ain't You Mad?” Mildred's white employer looks up from the newspaper and says to her, “Isn't it too bad about this girl tryin' to get into Alabama University?” He goes on to exclaim that “you people” must be angry and asks Mildred what “you people” are going to do about it (Childress 171). Mildred explodes at his hypocrisy, exclaiming “Ain't you mad?” and continuing, “If you ain't got the grace to stand up and fight for your own decency and good name, don't you dare ask me what I'm gonna do, because as long as you ain't doin' I ain't gonna tell you” (Childress 172). In “Northerners Can Be So Smug,” Mildred takes her fellow black churchgoers to task for lambasting the South for its racial discrimination while “forgettin' that this land also has a North, East and West to it!” (Childress 178). “To hear us talk, anyone would think the North was some kind of promiseland come true,” she continues, but “All is not sweetness and light just ‘cause we're on the North side of the Mason and Dixon line!” (Childress 179).

In contrast to housewife humor, then, which is only gently rebellious and only covertly political, these examples of Childress's work support John O. Killens' assertion, in comparing Mildred to Langston Hughes' Jesse B. Simple, that “Childress's humor is in the profoundest tradition, i.e., humor with a political vengeance” (131). Both Kerr and Bombeck, as noted, when they stray from the arena of home, still focus on personal rather than political change. Their message to housewives is to resist the social and commercial pressures that try to control who they are and what they do within the parameters of woman's role rather than to reject that role altogether or to examine and/or challenge the economic system and political institutions that define and reinforce that role. Childress, on the other hand, seeks to promote a revolution in both the white and black communities of America in order to achieve a transformation of American institutions that will finally provide Afro-Americans with the rights, opportunities, and protections they are owed. As Mildred avers in response to a disquisition on the beauty of “separate but equal,” provided by her employer's redneck visitor from Alabama: “I got a message for you. We gonna change all these laws ‘til there ain't a piece or a smithereen of Jim Crow left” (Childress 189).

What nevertheless connects these “political” pieces with the “softer” social commentary pieces of the housewife humorists is that Childress, like these writers, uses the devices of humor, especially incongruous contrasting images, to satirize those behaviors and precepts promoted by American culture to demean and oppress a particular group of people—blacks in her work, instead of housewives. Moreover, while Childress has been criticized for creating a character whose assertiveness is too unrealistic to emulate and the housewife humorists have been attacked for creating characters whose passivity engenders acceptance of a meaningless role, in fact both Mildred and the personae of housewife humor encourage their readers (albeit, in different ways) to change the stereotypes and defy the myths attached by the culture to the signs—i.e., housewife or domestic—used to define their being and, thereby, to enlarge the boundaries of the possible in their lives. Consequently, both Childress and the housewife humorists call for a reexamination of stereotypes and ideologies.

Another link between the work of housewife humorists and Childress is that the style of both is conversational and the tone, informal, presupposing a reader who is a peer of and who identifies with the speaker. The housewife persona speaks to the reader as she would to a friend, sharing her frustrations and anxieties, her subterfuges and strategies for coping. There is a confidentiality about her discourse that includes the reader in the “I,” transforming the singular into the plural “we,” and creating between the reader and writer the sense of intimacy that Joan Rivers sought to evoke with her opening stand-up line, “Can we talk here?” Similarly, Childress's persona, Mildred, opens each of her “conversations” with a greeting to her friend Marge—for example, “Marge … Day's work is an education,” or “Marge, ain't it strange how the two of us get get along so well?” or “Hey, Marge, come on in and live a while”—thus setting up an intimate relaxed atmosphere for a talk between friends that also establishes a tone of confidentiality. Although the reader is never provided with any of Marge's actual words—the “conversations” are actually Mildred's monologues—the reader is nevertheless drawn actively into the narrative by, in a sense, becoming Marge, by filling in from her own experience what Marge would say and how Marge would react to Mildred's stories. In both Childress's work and that of the housewife humorists, then, the writers elicit from their readers a sympathetic ear for their speakers and a conspiratorial approval of their speaker's actions and thoughts, thus achieving one of the major social functions of humor: the fostering of group solidarity.

In creating a sense of solidarity, both Childress and writers like Kerr and Bombeck use humor to debunk myths about the group that the persona represents. In housewife humor, the popular image of the happy, successful homemaker—who cheerfully and expertly performs her myriad roles of cook, cleaner, laundress, interior decorator, chauffeur, nurturer, guidance counselor, tutor, hostess, caterer, moral support, mistress, model, mother, wife, etc.—is countermanded by the persona of the frustrated, imperfect housewife, who is depicted as the “real” norm. Kerr, for instance, despite her professional accomplishments, depicts her persona as being insecure, vulnerable to the opinions of others, and as incapable of keeping her household under control as her weight. Bombeck describes her persona's house as a disaster area and her ego as under constant attack from family members, as well as the media. In identifying with a housewife whose life is an unending and often unsuccessful struggle to bring order out of chaos, the reader can exorcise her own anxieties about her own imperfections as a wife, mother, and homemaker. The housewife humorists also poke fun at the activities that form the housewife's daily existence and, by extension, at the notion that a woman's value as a human being is determined by the dedication and talent with which she executes these activities. By enabling the reader to recognize and laugh at the incongruity between the idealized image of the housewife promoted by the culture and the authentic individual represented by the humorous persona, the housewife humorist encourages her readers to believe that they can deviate from the standards for women imposed by the culture's ideology without suffering the consequences of this deviation: guilt and shame.

In a similar manner, Childress challenges basic assumptions that the dominant white culture has promoted about blacks, in general, and about black domestic workers, in particular. As Trudier Harris writes, “Instead of a handkerchief-headed black woman, or one bowing and scraping before her ‘quality white folks,’ Mildred stood up straight and tall” (Intro. xv). This defiance, expressed in the first “conversation” in the book, the title piece, sets the tone for the work as a whole and establishes Mildred as the negation of the Aunt Jemima stereotype, of the docile, domesticated domestic. By directly confronting her white employer in “a violation of the expected behavior of domestics” (Harris, Intro. xix), Mildred refutes the myth propounded by the employer that Mildred is “like one of the family.” “I am not just like one of the family at all!” Mildred retorts, and she cites as evidence the facts that the family eats in the dining room and she eats in the kitchen, that she does not “just adore” the employer's children, who are spoiled, and that while the employer thinks it a compliment to say that the family doesn't think of her as a servant, she sure feels like a servant after all the work she performs (Childress 2). Moreover, Mildred ends not by apologizing for her outburst or by backing down in any way but, instead, by asking her employer for a raise which, she says, will make her feel that she is appreciated as much as the employer's words imply.

“Debunking myths and demanding change … [is] a pattern of interaction throughout Like One of the Family (Harris, Intro. xx). In “If You Want to Get Along with Me,” for example, Mildred exposes the hypocrisy of the white employer who pretends to be her friend only to exploit her. In “The Pocket-book Game,” where Childress pokes fun at a white employer's assumption that Mildred, being black, is by nature dishonest, and in “The Health Card,” where Childress satirizes the employer's fear that Mildred, because she is black, may be diseased, Childress uses a standard device of “out-group” humor—role reversal—to empower Mildred while at the same time disempowering the white employer who would disparage her. By refusing to allow herself to be used or manipulated by her employers, by asserting her integrity and autonomy, Mildred provides a new, more “real” norm or model of black womanhood for other black women and working-class women to emulate while allowing Childress to poke fun at the prejudices and delusions of whites. By allowing Mildred “to violate all the requirements for silence and invisibility that were historically characteristic of domestics” (Harris, Intro. xx), and to do so without being fired from her jobs, Childress encourages her readers also to question the presumed authority of whites and to force white people to confront the stereotypes they have about black people. Thus, Childress, like the housewife humorists, suggests in her work that one can deviate from the norm of expected behavior (here, the behavior imposed by whites on blacks) without suffering the consequences of this deviation: physical injury or financial deprivation rather than guilt or shame.

While Childress's Mildred serves functions similar to those of the personae of Kerr and Bombeck, Childress contrasts with the housewife humorists in that, as John O. Killens has noted and as the remarks of Trudier Harris imply, she does not achieve her effects by directing laughter at, as well as with, her persona. Mildred never plays the fool, and her difference from the traditional “wise fool” character is that Childress' pointed humor arises not from the discrepancy between the character's overt foolishness and her covert wisdom but from the discrepancy between white people's foolish stereotypes about blacks and the reality Mildred embodies. This discrepancy continually creates the irony that reveals the whites as the fools. Mildred is also different from traditional Afro-American “tricksters” in that she assumes no mask herself. Rather, she continually repudiates the mask that whites attempt to impose on her and compels them to confront the incongruity between their preconceptions and the reality of who she is. In doing so, she turns the disparagement directed at her into laughter at the disparagers and acquires an aura of at least personal invulnerability.

While the personae of the housewife humorists may appear to be more vulnerable than Mildred to the opinions and preconceptions of others and are often depicted by their authors as ridiculous in their efforts to mold themselves into stereotyped images that are patently absurd, one way in which Kerr and Bombeck encourage their readers to be more autonomous is by giving the lie to the notion that homemaking is and should be a housewife's only raison d'etre. As a playwright, in addition to a homemaker, Kerr's autobiographical persona is shown in other venues than the home and as interested in pursuits other than keeping house. Bombeck's persona is also presented as having interests in activities other than housekeeping and childrearing, if she only had the time to pursue them, and as seeking not only to develop her own abilities while taking care of the family but also to prepare for life after the children are on their own. Moreover, Bombeck's stated purpose for writing her first book was to counter the “bum rap” given housewives in the media—the image of insular, trivial people properly obsessed with cleaning products, deodorants, and appliances.

Childress, too, challenges the stereotype of women, in general, and black women—especially working-class black women—in particular, as devoid of intellectual aspirations and social interests. Not only does Childress characterize Mildred as self-assertive and willing to risk suffering the potential economic consequences of her assertive behavior—perhaps, in part, because she is single and without children to support—but Childress also challenges the stereotype of the “dumb” domestic by having Mildred discuss “a range of topics that others might judge antithetical to a domestic's intellectual ken” and “that others would probably prefer to have her overlook” (Harris, Intro. xvii). Childress represents Mildred as someone who is concerned about the social and economic discrimination faced by blacks, both in America and overseas, and who is also active in organizations that promote civil rights, equal opportunity for blacks, and an awareness of and pride in black history and black achievement. In various conversations, she defends her nephew's political activism for civil rights (“Bubba”), demands respect for domestic work (“All about My Job”), criticizes black preachers for discouraging rather than inspiring their congregations (“I Go to Church”), defends Paul Robeson against the attacks of the white press as embodied in the character of a white employer (“Story Tellin' Time”), laments the stereotypical portrayals of blacks in movies and plays (“About Those Colored Movies”), and argues for a union for domestic workers (“We Need a Union Too”). Finally, Childress uses the topics of some “conversations” to promote a simple but humanistic philosophy of life that includes respect for age, appreciation of human labor, abhorrence of war and violence of any kind, contempt for pretense and snobbery, and appreciation for the good things that life can offer: a fine meal, a beautiful sunset, a kind gesture, a moment of intimacy with friends or family. The conscience and concern displayed by Mildred often contrast with the insensitivity and condescension of her white employers, but these same qualities also allow her to express appreciation for a particular white employer's respect and friendship (“I Liked Workin' at That Place”) or for a group of white South African women who protested for Negro rights (“Somehow I'd Like to Thank Them”).

In challenging the stereotypes of housewives and domestics as women with no other interests, skills, or concerns but those connected to activities that serve their own or their employer's households, housewife humorists and Childress both endow their speakers with dreams and aspirations to do something and be something more than what their present circumstances prescribe. Thus, Kerr presents her narrative self as someone who seeks a way to balance a playwriting career with her homemaking responsibilities, who wants to integrate the pleasures of family life, however chaotic, with the excitement of the theatre, however nerve-wracking, without shortchanging either. While Bombeck tends to generalize the desire to be something more than just a household drudge, she attributes to housewives as a group an after-the-children-are-grown wish to utilize in the world whatever talents they believe they have had to subordinate to homemaking.

Childress's Mildred also has dreams of being something other than a domestic. In “I Wish I Was a Poet,” she prefaces her narration of an experience that moved her by telling Marge that she wishes she were a poet not because she wants to be famous but because “sometimes there are poetry things that I see and I'd like to tell people about them in a poetry way; only I don't know how, and when I tell it, it's just a plain flat story” (Childress 102). Of course, Mildred, by virtue of her story-telling ability, displays throughout the book—especially in pieces like “Listen for the Music,” “Hands,” “Pretty Sights and Good Feelin's,” and “All About Miss Tubman”—an artistic sensibility that enables her to manipulate language and create images that evoke from her listeners (employers, Marge, friends, children, etc.), as well as from the reader, the responses she desires. As Trudier Harris writes, “Creation begins with observation, and Mildred has the potential to see beyond the obvious, to look beneath the surface of things.” “The interest … in making things comes unexpectedly to life,” Harris continues, “is what defines Mildred as a budding artist. Her imagination has not been dulled by housework, and … for those who would question a maid becoming an artist [the passage from ‘Hands’ describing the power and beauty of things made by laboring hands] suffices to combat such objections. A short way from the statement that everyone who works is a servant is also the suggestion … that any servant can become an artist” (“‘I Wish I Was A Poet’: The Character as Artist in Alice Childress's Like One of the Family,” 25). As the housewife humorists, by their own example, demonstrate to their readers that women need not be condemned by their decision to marry and have children to a life of unremitting subordination of their own needs and dreams to the demands of homemaking, Childress demonstrates through Mildred that the necessity of doing domestic work, or any other labor, to survive economically need not destroy an individual's creativity or prevent her from finding other outlets for artistic expression.

As artists themselves, of course, the housewife humorists and Childress have different interconnections with American literary and humor traditions and different “roots.” As Harris develops in her analyses of Childress in From Mammies to Militants and other articles, Mildred's language is tied to traditional Afro-American written and oral forms, as well as to Afro-American conceptions of art and the artist. In contrast, housewife humor is connected to a body of predominantly white women's humor in America, which defines itself within and against a tradition of white male humor. Just as Kerr and Bombeck, in their personae, reproduce the tone and idiom of the white middle class and adapt to their purposes techniques that have characterized American humor since the 19th century, Childress's Mildred represents the cadences and idiom of Afro-American speech, and Mildred's “conversations” reflect basic patterns of ethnic humor that involve defiance and deflation of the oppressor through linguistic deconstructions and comic reversal. In addition, while the emphasis in housewife humor is on the liberation of the individual from the constraints of the nuclear family, the focus in Childress's work is on the liberation of the Afro-American community from the political, social, and economic oppression imposed by the dominant culture.

While recognizing the significant differences between the nature, functions, and impact of the humor created by Childress and by the housewife humorists, this paper, in focusing on the intersections between the works of these writers, seeks not only to enlarge our notion of “domestic” humor but also to serve one of Childress's own purposes. In a piece called “In the Laundry Room,” Mildred pushes a white houseworker to overcome her racial prejudices by pointing out to her that what they have in common (their work, their class, their status, and, consequently, their problems and concerns) transcends racial differences and provides a basis for mutual support. By examining some of the similarities between Childress and the white purveyors of “domestic humor,” by focusing on what unites as well as separates them, we can locate areas of common concern in our own lives and perhaps discover ways in which we can form alliances and utilize the devices of humor to fight our common prejudices and oppressions.

Works Cited

Childress, Alice. Like One of the Family. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Dresner, Zita Z. “Domestic Comic Writers,” in: Women's Comic Visions, ed. June Sochen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991, 93-114.

Harris, Trudier. “Introduction” to Like One of Family by Alice Childress. Boston: Beacon, 1986, xi-xxxiii.

———. From Mammies to Militants. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982, 3-33.

———. “‘I Wish I Was a Poet’: The Character as Artist in Alice Childress's Like One of the Family.Black American Literature Forum 14/1 (Spring 1980): 24-30,

Killens, John O. “The Literary Genius of Alice Childress,” in: Black Women Writers, ed. Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1983, 129-33.

Patricia R. Schroeder (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6083

SOURCE: “Re-Reading Alice Childress,” in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 32-7.

[In the following essay, Schroeder surveys the reasons for the critical neglect of Childress's work—especially on the part of feminist critics—and urges a reassessment of her oeuvre.]

Until quite recently, playwright and novelist Alice Childress has received relatively little critical attention. When her plays attracted scholarly notice at all, it was often the sort that labelled her work in a limited way, thereby ghettoizing her plays and paving the way for further critical neglect. She has been described, for example, as a didactic black activist sometimes given to “sermonizing” (Gelb 23, Oliver 105) whose plays “would be better if she did not assault race prejudice at every turn” (Abramson 204); as a sentimental writer of melodrama (Barnes 30) whose plays look “like a story wrenched from the pages of what used to be known as a magazine for women” (Watt 163); as an old-fashioned photographic realist (Barnes 30); and as a writer of sometimes convincing characters but of undramatic plots (Kerr 322). Given that Childress is the sole African-American woman playwright to have written, produced, and published plays over the past four decades (Brown-Guillory, Wines 98), that she has won an Obie (for Trouble in Mind 1955), and that several of her plays have received television productions (Trouble in Mind by the BBC in 1956, Wedding Band by ABC in 1966, Wine in the Wilderness by WGBH of Boston in 1969), this critical neglect is hard to fathom.1 Even contemporary feminist critics have largely overlooked her contributions to American theatre. With a few notable exceptions, feminist drama critics have paid scant attention to Childress' plays.2

Given the history of feminist drama theory in the United States, however, this feminist critical neglect can be traced to several possible sources. First, the earliest feminist critics to notice Childress focused on her acting career and the dearth of good roles that led her to playwriting. They saw her primarily as a liberal feminist interested in creating good roles for African-American actresses and providing a role model for aspiring African-American female playwrights.3 As a result, they often overlooked the potentially revolutionary content of her work. Second, most feminist drama theorists are white, and as Elsa Barkley Brown and others have pointed out, white feminists have not always acknowledged that race is a component of gender, that “being a woman is, in fact, not extractable from the context in which one is a woman—[from] race, class, time, and place” (Brown 300). White feminists like myself do not always recognize the feminist implications of African-American women's plays; we are still training ourselves to recognize how the differences among women challenge the unexamined assumptions we bring to our reading or viewing of a woman's work. Despite the relevance of this feminist racial myopia, however, in the specific case of Childress another factor may be even more to blame for feminists' overlooking her work: Childress' plays most often rely on stage realism, a dramatic form that many feminist theorists see as antithetical to feminist goals.

Since this feminist attack on realism has gained widespread acceptance in recent years—especially among materialist feminists, whose number includes many prominent feminist drama theorists of the past decade—a brief overview of the materialist feminist objections to realism is in order. In their influential essay on materialist feminist theory, Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt define materialist feminism as based on this set of premises: that the material conditions of our lives are central to understanding culture and society; that literature and literary criticism (and I would add theatre) are products of specific historical moments; that many aspects of human identity are socially constructed; that gender as a social construct overlaps with other categories like race, class, and sexual identity; and that analysis of such categories is most useful when it reveals underlying power relations (xi).

Given this set of premises, materialist feminist drama theorists have argued that stage realism, with its fourth-wall division between actor and spectator, its domestic focus, its linear inevitability, and its illusion of objectivity, conceals a system which works against women. They see stage realism as presenting a constructed, subjective version of offstage life, which it passes off as an accurate, even a normative, reflection of the way things are. For Sue-Ellen Case, then, realism's traditional focus on the domestic sphere and the family unit reifies the male as sexual subject and the female as sexual “Other,” making realism a “prisonhouse of art” for women (124). For Case and other prominent materialist feminists, this masking of authorial ideology as objective truth allows realism to reinforce the status quo, validate the norms and values of the dominant culture, and confirm rather than challenge unequal power relations between genders.4 Realism is thus seen as hopelessly complicit with “oppressive representational strategies” (Dolan 84), a tool for perpetuating dominant ideology rather than inciting the social changes to which materialist feminists are committed.

Certainly Childress' reliance on stage realism must have discouraged many materialist feminist drama theorists from carefully scrutinizing her work. There is, however, a profound irony in this lack of attention. What I will argue in this essay is that Alice Childress is a materialist feminist herself, and that her plays—in particular Wine in the Wilderness—reflect her attention to material culture, to unequal power relations, to the relationships between race, class, and gender, and to political activism. The fact that her primary tool—stage realism—is one that contemporary feminists (like some of the mainstream reviewers quoted in my opening paragraph) tend to dismiss should not prevent us from viewing Childress as someone who sees women in social context, who “underscores the roles of class, [race], and history in creating the oppression of women” (Case 82), and who structures her plays to depict this complex interaction of forces.

Childress' materialist leanings became evident to me after reading an interview with the playwright. In the interview, Childress expressed regard for the plays of Sean O'Casey, himself a self-identified materialist playwright (and also a realist) who focused on particular cultural and historical events. Commenting on the importance of depicting specific cultural contexts, Childress remarked:

It's all very well to just take any old play and cast it from different races with no further comment—a nice exercise in democracy, a social service to one another—but I think there is something very particular about different races and religious backgrounds in America that has yet to be fully explored. … Some of the greatest plays have come from Sean O'Casey, Irish playwright, who wrote about the poor Irish, for the Irish.

(in Betsko and Koenig 68)

Of course, Childress was not the first to recognize similarities between Irish and African-American cultures. Both groups had experienced colonization by a dominant group that refused to recognize the validity of their culture, and both groups have had to develop strategies to survive, personally and artistically, within a hostile, hybrid culture.5 Moreover, a number of commentators on the development of African-American culture (particularly in the Harlem Renaissance) have noted the influence of Irish folk drama on African-American dramatic forms (Hatch 209, France 75). But Childress' invocation of O'Casey in particular provides an important clue to understanding her realist dramaturgy and her political commitment, especially if her work is read in conjunction with O'Casey's. Vivian M. Patraka has described the value of such feminist intertextual reading—of reading, as Patraka puts it, “backwards and forwards” through time and texts:

Reading forward … based on earlier canonical works, can shed light on the sources of later works, or clarify what techniques can be taken or modified for feminist use. … However, postmodern feminist works also create an impetus for reading backwards to alter and redefine the parameters of these earlier texts.

(Patraka 172)

While Childress is not a “postmodern” playwright in terms of experimenting with structure, Patraka's statement nonetheless suggests that reading Childress' plays through the filter of O'Casey's influence might reveal something valuable about their mutual interest in the workings of material culture.

The attraction an Irish playwright would have had for Childress is clear from her 1955 play Trouble in Mind, in which she equates the British rule imposed on Ireland with the cultural colonization of blacks by whites in twentieth-century America. In Trouble in Mind, Wiletta, an African-American actor, refuses to play the demeaning role of a “mammy” figure in a racist play. Abetted by the sympathy of an elderly Irish doorman who is proud that his ancestors fought for Irish home rule, Wiletta rejects her role in the potentially lucrative Broadway production, claiming, “I want to be an actress, I've always wanted to be an actress, and they ain't gonna do me the way they did the home rule!” (154). Wiletta's defiance of a stereotype that contradicts her sense of racial identity thus directly links British subjugation of the Irish people with white oppression of African-Americans.

Re-reading Childress with this explicit connection in mind, it becomes quite clear that O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman is the model for Childress' Wine in the Wilderness, in terms of theme, setting, structure, characters, language, developing action, and final self-awareness of the central character. It is equally clear, however, that Childress saw the need to revise O'Casey's play, especially the ending. By reading these two plays backwards and forwards—that is, by assessing O'Casey's influence on Childress and Childress' alterations of O'Casey—Childress' materialist roots, as well as her unique vision of intersecting social, racial, and gender roles, become luminously clear.

First, an O'Casey refresher. The Shadow of a Gunman takes place in 1920s Dublin during the Sinn Fein rebellion against British rule of Ireland, and illustrates, in O'Casey's words, “the bewilderment and horror at one section of the community trying to murder and kill the other” (cited in Williams 148). The setting, a one-room tenement flat where the would-be poet, Donal Davoren, resides, is a noisy, overcrowded place, where Davoren is often interrupted by unwelcome visits from garrulous neighbors and, finally, raided by the Black and Tan soldiers of the British Executive searching for bombs. Davoren spends most of the day writing sentimental verse while ignoring the natural eloquence of his neighbors, priding himself on being “a pioneer in thought” rather than action, and studiously avoiding any connection to the personal and political life teeming around him. Convinced of his natural superiority to his fellow tenement dwellers, Davoren denounces them, declaiming: “Damn the people! They live in the abyss, the poet lives on the mountain-top; … The poet ever strives to save the people; the people ever strive to destroy the poet” (107). The irony of this statement becomes painfully clear at the play's end when Minnie Powell, a working-class neighbor who believes Davoren to be a rebel gunman in hiding, dies to protect him, leaving Davoren to moan his role as “poet and poltroon.” As Raymond Williams has summed up the action of this play, “With real killing in the streets, the poverty and the pretence [sic] cross to make new inadvertent victims” (148).

Childress' Wine in the Wilderness is a very similar play, both structurally and thematically. Set in a one-room apartment in a Harlem tenement during a period of intraracial rioting in the 1960s, the play depicts the shift in self-awareness of Bill Jameson, an African-American painter, who as the play begins is working on a three-part representation of black womanhood, from innocence (a portrait of a little girl) to experience (a “lost woman” or a “messed-up chick,” in Bill's parlance) to the jewel-studded, imperious, cold Vogue model who (for Bill) personifies wine in the wilderness. Like Davoren, Bill feels superior to those around him, criticizing the rioters for lacking a plan but refusing to take action himself. He takes Davoren's sense of superiority a step further, however, because he imagines his art as a corrective force, especially for black women. He hopes one day to exhibit his wine-in-the-wilderness triptych in a public place, perhaps a post office or a bank, “so the messed up chicks in the neighborhood can see what a woman ought to be” (389). As James Hatch has described him, Bill is one of Franklin Frazier's black bourgeoisie, educated but artificial, “preaching blackness, brotherhood, and love simply because it is in vogue” (737), decorating his apartment with African art while disparaging the African-American community around him.

Into this self-contained world enters one Tommy Marie, a ghetto dweller whose home has been burned down in the riots and whom Bill's friends see as the perfect model for Bill's yet-to-be-painted “messed-up chick.” Like Minnie Powell, the uneducated, independent Tommy represents the undazzling tenement dwellers: she embodies their struggles, honesty, bravery, and eloquence, qualities lacking in the pretentious painter and unnoticed by him—at least, at first. Through his interactions with Tommy during the course of the play, Bill comes to recognize the emptiness of his artistic vision. This awareness comes, however, only after he and his friends misjudge, insult, and attempt to exploit Tommy, who suffers at their hands but, unlike Minnie Powell, survives. As in Gunman, in Wine in the Wilderness there is real killing in the streets, and poverty and pretense cross, but in Childress' play, Tommy Marie refuses to become another victim. Like Wiletta in Trouble in Mind, Tommy insists on defining herself and controlling how her representation is used; that is, she insists on defending her own home rule.

Tommy's struggle for home rule takes three distinct forms: she learns to challenge class assumptions, expose racial bigotry, and defy gender oppression. It is in the first of these three categories—class struggle—that Childress most clearly follows the O'Casey model: both plays show that assumptions about socioeconomic class status, whether true or false, can be used as implements of tyranny. In The Shadow of a Gunman, Minnie Powell is an uneducated, independent young woman who, in her words, has “had to push her way through life … without help from any one” (93) and who has developed, in O'Casey's words, “a force and assurance beyond her years” (88). To Davoren, however, she is only a pretty, flirtatious girl with the good taste to dress pleasingly, and while he is attracted to her, he laments her lack of education and allows his roommate to call her “an ignorant little bitch that thinks of nothin' but jazz dances” (108). Davoren condescends to her throughout their conversation, instructing her about the nature of poetry and poetic inspiration, and even fostering her romantic illusion that he is a gunman. In short, he cannot see Minnie's strength and heart beneath her working class speech and girlish appearance.

Tommy is similarly misinterpreted by Bill, who sees only a reflection of his middle-class assumptions in her appearance and behavior. Prepared to see the “messed-up chick” his elitist friends Sonny and Cynthia have promised to bring him, Bill overlooks the fact that Tommy, like Minnie, has been “doin' for [herself]” all her life (397), and sees only her “messed-up” appearance, the result of her home's being burned down in the riots. When he offers her a choice of alcoholic beverages and she chooses wine so as not to become quickly intoxicated (the others are drinking looted whiskey), Bill delightedly tells her, “That's all right, baby, you just a wine-o” (391). When he hears her name, Tommy, he jumps to the conclusion that her full name is the stereotypical Thomasina, which it is not. When Tommy doesn't recognize a portrait of Frederick Douglass, Bill lectures her on historical figures (Frederick Douglass, John Brown), and dismisses the contemporary leaders (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X) whom Tommy admires. Like Davoren, Bill wants no connection with the politics of the day. And just as Davoren's underestimation of Minnie ultimately produces powerful irony for the spectator, so does Bill's smugly maintained false impression of Tommy. Bill knows that the “messed-up chick” he plans to paint is a victim of hardship and suffering; he describes this abstract African-American woman as “The lost woman … what the society has made out of our women” (388). However, he fails to see—at least, until Tommy shocks him into awareness—either the strength and independence such women have developed or his own role in perpetuating their hardships. Through Tommy's eventual unmasking of Bill's pretensions, Childress reveals her own materialist roots, portraying, in her words, “have-nots in a have society” (“Candle” 112) and illustrating their dignity and strength in the face of condescension and contempt.

In addition to the class issues developed in both plays, both also explore the cultural construction of race, revealing self-definition in racial terms to be crucial to individual home rule. This linking of Irish and African-American racial identity has historical precedent, since both groups have suffered demeaning racial definitions imposed by dominant groups within their own homelands, and both groups have often been discussed in the same prejudicial language. In mid-nineteenth-century Britain, for example, Victorian scientists sometimes divided humanity into races according to physical features that, in their taxonomy, also represented differences in character. Their hierarchy of races located blue-eyed Teutons and Anglo-Saxons at the top, black people—especially “Hottentots”—at the bottom, with Celts and Jews somewhere in between (Nothing But 55). Self-determination for the Irish would be impossible, according to this line of reasoning, because the Irish had certain affinities with “Africanoid” man and so lacked understanding of rational liberty and self-government (Curtis 69-73). In 1886, for example, Lord Salisbury opposed home rule for Ireland by saying, “You would not confide free representative institutions to the Hottentots, for instance,” and concluded that self-government worked well only for the “higher” races (in Nothing But 57). Throughout the century English comparisons between Irish people and black people abounded, perhaps culminating with historian Edward Freeman's remark that “This would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it” (in Curtis 81).6

This Victorian hierarchy of races is, of course, startlingly parallel to the paternalistic arguments about racial inferiority that helped perpetuate the enslavement of black people in the United States through several centuries.7 Since black people were purported to be intellectually and morally inferior to whites and thus incapable of maintaining or governing themselves, and since anyone with even a drop of African-American blood was, by definition, black, blackness in this country is quite clearly “a political and ethical construct” rather than a matter of skin color or cultural identification (West 25-26). Within this historical context, the notion of race is revealed as an artificial construct developed originally to protect property values. And in our still-racist, twentieth-century society, accepting blackness as a fixed and essentialized racial identity means being “subject to potential white supremacist abuse” (West 25).8

In exposing racial identity as a cultural construct designed to maintain an unequal balance of power, Childress again follows O'Casey's model, although she develops the theme more explicitly than he did. In The Shadow of a Gunman all the characters are Irish. Nonetheless, they spend a great deal of energy defining what “Irishness” actually comprises. From the opening scene of the play, Davoren and his roommate, Seumas Shields, criticize what they see as typical Irish character flaws. “The Irish people are still in the Stone Age,” Shields complains when a neighbor wakes him by bellowing loudly (80). Later, when a business partner breaks an engagement, Shields laments, “Upon me soul, I'm beginning to believe that the Irish people aren't, never were, an' never will be fit for self-government” (84). While Shields' remarks are parodic, an ironic commentary on cultural stereotypes, they do suggest the way such stereotypes can be internalized and retain power even if home rule is won. And despite his comic pose regarding the various alleged forms of Irish incompetence, when the rioting comes to his own tenement, Shields reveals his dismay at the Irish civil strife: “I believe in the freedom of Ireland,” he tells Davoren, “an' that England has no right to be here, but I draw the line when I hear the gunmen blowin' about dyin' for the people, when it's the people that are dyin' for the gunmen” (111). For Shields, then, the rebel gunmen are not Irish. Cultural identity for him thus depends on actions and words rather than on national origin; it is performative rather than a static identity position.

Childress' characters, like O'Casey's, share a racial heritage—in this case, African-Americanness. How they describe and enact that position varies among them, however, suggesting that Childress shared O'Casey's materialist awareness that race is constructed for political ends. Moreover, the different definitions of blackness circulated among the characters form another source of oppression that, like class status, Tommy must recognize and renounce. As exemplified by their different political heroes (i.e., Frederick Douglass versus Malcolm X), Bill and Tommy disagree on what exactly it means to be black in America. For Bill, racial identity consists of decorating his apartment with African artifacts, reading books about African-American history, and fantasizing about Abyssinian maidens as exemplars of “perfect black womanhood” (387). When Tommy first enters and complains about the “niggers” that burned down her house, Bill insists that she use the term “Afro-Americans,” explaining that “we can talk about each other a little better than that” (392). For Tommy, though, blackness is not art, history, or words, but lived experience and cultural heritage: it comprises family members who are Elks (originally a black organization, according to Tommy); membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; family roots traced back to a specific Virginia plantation; and sharing what one has managed to retain after being victimized in a riot. At first, Tommy defers to Bill's notions and vocabulary, but when she learns that he had planned to use her as a model of black female degradation, she discredits his notion of African-American identity, crying:

If a black somebody is in a history book, or printed in a pitcher, or drawed on a paintin' … or if they're a statue, … dead, and outta the way, and can't talk back, then you dig 'em and full-a so much damn admiration and talk about “our” history. But when you run into us livin' and breathin' ones, with the life's blood still pumpin' through us, … then you comin' on 'bout we ain't never together. You hate us, that's what! You hate black me!

(417)

For Tommy, then, race is a set of support structures designed to promote community and ease the effects of racism, and she distinguishes it from the false solidarity to which Bill and his friends give only lip service. Although for a time she wears the African robes that Bill provides for her, Tommy ultimately refuses to accept the trappings of blackness that, in the cases of Bill and his friends, signify nothing. In exposing Bill's concept of race as just another method for claiming authority, Childress reveals race as “a highly contested representation of power” (Higginbotham 253) that is “historically specific and inconsistent” (Lubiano, “But Compared” 256). Although the playwright herself does not intrude into the seamless theatrical production of meaning—that is, she does not break the realistic frame—she does employ Tommy to intervene in the constructions of race and class and so expose them as implements of social hierarchies.

But class and race are not the only factors by which Bill attempts to colonize Tommy when she enters his apartment. As Gayle Austin has pointed out in her insightful semiotic reading, “The sign of ‘Woman’ in this play bears the double cultural encoding of black in a white-dominant cuiture and female in a male-dominant one” (Feminist Theories 91), and Tommy suffers just as much from gender discrimination as she does from class prejudice or imposed racial definitions. That Bill thinks he can define ideal black female behavior is clear from his initial plans to use the triptych to show the neighborhood women “what a woman ought to be” (389). While Tommy poses for him, Bill tries to indoctrinate her on the trouble with African-American women: they eat too much, they don't know “a damn thing 'bout bein' feminine” (406), they are “too damn opinionated” (406), they want to “latch on” to a man (407), and, worst of all, they “all want to be great brains” instead of leaving “somethin' for a man to do” (405). But Bill's extravagant chauvinism cannot simply be chalked up to personal failing in this play. It is shared by Oldtimer, who prepares for Tommy's arrival by planning to “stomp her to death,” by Sonny, who orders Cynthia to cook for the others without even noticing her ironic response, and by Cynthia herself, who in a particularly disturbing scene instructs Tommy on how to attract a man. In Cynthia's reasoning, self-sufficiency “makes us [black women] lose our femininity. … It makes us hard” (399). She advises Tommy to stay in the background, to ask Bill's opinion before offering her own, and claims that “what [black women] need is a little more sex appeal and a little less washing, cooking, and ironing” (400), ignoring Tommy's rebuttal that if she doesn't do for herself, no one else will do for her (399). Emphasizing her feminist interests, Childress once told an interviewer, “I never run out of subject matter for writing about women's rights” (qtd. in Curb 59). These scenes in Wine in the Wilderness where characters directly debate gender roles prove her point.

In fact, both Cynthia and Tommy suffer from conflicting expectations of gender, class, and racial roles, and their very different physical appearances reveal that they are both trying to function within competing sign systems designed for different audiences. Cynthia, for example, wears her hair in a natural style, indicating (in the 1960s) acceptance of her African heritage and the beauty of blackness. Her clothing, however, is described as “tweedy” and “in quiet, good taste” (390), suggesting white American bourgeois values. Tommy, in contrast, wears a mis-matched skirt and sweater, signifying to Bill and company her poverty, her lack of taste, or both, but not the truth—that she is a victim of intraracial violence. Furthermore, she wears a cheap wig to hide her hair, confused by the mixed cultural codes—“Do it this way, don't do it, leave it natural, straighten it, process, no process” (400)—that society transmits to black women of any class. In this way, Childress reveals that “sexism, racism, and classism are immutably connected to black women's oppression” (Brown-Guillory, Wines 106).

It is in depicting women's oppression that Childress most notably departs from O'Casey's dramatic model. She does this in several ways. First and most obviously, while O'Casey's Minnie and Childress' Tommy both function as catalysts for self-awareness in central male figures, Minnie acts out of ignorance (she believes Davoren is a revolutionary) and dies as a result. Tommy, on the other hand, not only survives, she lives to tell off her would-be exploiters and profit by the experience, walking out, as she says, “with much more than I brought in” (419). Through her interaction with Bill and the others, she comes to recognize the value of defining herself on her own terms. At the end of the play she tells Bill:

I don't have to wait for anybody's by-your-leave to be a “Wine In the Wilderness” woman. I can be if I wanta, … and I am. I am. I am. I'm not the one you made up and painted, the very pretty lady who can't talk back, … but I'm “Wine in the Wilderness” … alive and kickin'.

(419)

Tommy does not share Minnie's enforced silence at the play's conclusion. And as Gayle Austin has noted, “It is difficult to misinterpret a sign that speaks so forcefully of its signification” (Feminist Theories 91).

This shift in who controls Tommy's subjectivity and who defines what she represents signals Childress' second major departure from O'Casey. In The Shadow of a Gunman, Minnie forces Davoren to recognize his cowardice and impotence, but this is a purely personal shift in awareness. In contrast, Tommy leaves Bill with both a revised self-awareness and also a revitalized recognition of the political functions of art. He ends up envisioning a new triptych, not one designed to educate black women on their proper social roles, but one meant to celebrate the power and beauty that already exist in the African-American community. His new triptych features three new paintings: one of Oltimer, representing “the guy who was here before there were scholarships and grants and stuff like that, the guy they kept outta the schools” (420); one of Cynthia and Sonny-Man, “Young Man and Woman, workin' together to do our thing” (421); and in the center Tommy as she is, a survivor of everything from riots and exploitation to misinterpretation and abuse. This time, Bill intends his painting to be displayed in his own community, so the neighborhood children can see the portrait and say, “Hey, don't she look like somebody we know?” (421). In short, Bill no longer attempts to impose a personal ideology on the representations he paints, recognizing now that meaning derives from social context.

This use of art as an agent of social change is, in part, what Alice Childress has done herself in Wine in the Wilderness. As a materialist like O'Casey but with a feminist perspective, Childress has created an artistic representation of a world where there is killing in the streets, where poverty and pretense meet, but where strong, self-sufficient women have a potent voice that can lead the way toward social change. Working within a social theory of art (such as that defined by Raymond Williams), Childress has uncovered the characteristic assumption of the middle class that their beliefs are not conventions, but truths; and she has further revealed the true grounds of the inclusions and exclusions that specific cultural conventions, racial definitions, and gender expectations ratify (Williams 173). The facts that her plot is linear and causally structured, that her setting is a domestic space, that her characters appear to be coherent, and that the action pretends to mimesis—in short, the fact that the play exemplifies well-crafted realism—does not diminish the materialist-feminist nature of the work or detract from its political message. And in 1994, in a culture still reeling from the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, from judicial threats to reproductive freedom, and from the Los Angeles insurrection following the Rodney King beating (an event eerily reminiscent of Childress' 1969 play), re-reading Alice Childress through the filter of Sean O'Casey reveals her to be not just a black activist, or a liberal feminist, or a sentimental realist, but a strong voice expressing bewilderment and horror and calling vehemently for social change.

Notes

  1. Trudier Harris postulates that Childress' politics may have interfered with her achieving widespread critical recognition. During Childress' groundbreaking years (1940s and 50s), there was more public interest in racial integration than in the affirmations of blackness that her characters typically assert. Later, she wrote some dramatic sketches for Paul Robeson, whose subsequent connections with the Communist party may have adversely affected Childress' reputation in the 1950s (Harris 38). Childress herself speculates that it is the unfashionable content of her plays that has made them unpopular with reviewers and some audiences, since they focus on such issues as miscegenation and racial stereotypes (qtd. in Curb 67) and offer ordinary, middle-aged African-American women as heroes to admire in a society that has legislated against them or reduced them to stereotypes (Childress “Negro Woman”). Whatever the sources of this critical oversight may be, however, “worthy critical laurels have not yet fallen upon Childress” (Harris 38).

  2. Those notable exceptions include Gayle Austin, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Rosemary Curb, and Catherine Wiley, all of who have done excellent work on Childress. See list of works cited.

  3. See, for example, Austin “Alice Childress” 59, Brown-Guillory “Alice Childress” 68. This attention to Childress' pioneering role may come from her own comments on her acting career (see Betsko and Koenig 67-68) as well as on the place of African-American women in general (see her “The Negro Woman in America” and “A Candle in a Gale Wind”).

  4. A number of influential materialist feminist critics have explored the ways in which realism validates the dominant culture. See Belsey 51-57; Dolan 84; Diamond, “Brechtian Theory” 87 and “Mimesis” 61; Forte 115-117; Reinelt 154.

  5. Gallagher 25. See also Ashcroft et. al. on the post-colonial qualities of African-American culture.

  6. I am grateful to Susan Bennett for sharing the hard-to-obtain pamphlet Nothing but the Same Old Story with me.

  7. See the excellent summary of nineteenth-century United States scientific racism in Gould, esp. pp. 39-72.

  8. In addition to West's incisive discussion of race as a cultural construct, see Crenshaw, Hooks, and Lubiano.

Works Cited

Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre 1925-1959. New York: Columbia UP, 1969.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Strikes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Austin, Gayle. “Alice Childress: Black Woman Playwright as Feminist Critic.” Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 53-62.

———. Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990.

Barnes, Clive. “Childress' Play Opens at Public Theater.” New York Times 27 November 1972: 30.

Belsey, Catherine. “Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text.” Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture. Ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt. New York: Methuen, 1985. 45-64.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, ed. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Brown, Elsa Barkley. “‘What Has Happened Here’: The Politics of Difference in Women's History and Feminist Politics.” Feminist Studies 18.2 (1992): 295-312.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. “Alice Childress: A Pioneering Spirit.” Interview. Sage 4 (1987): 66-68.

———, ed. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. New York: Methuen, 1988.

Childress, Alice. “A Candle in a Gale Wind.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday, 1984. 111-16.

———. “The Negro Woman in Literature.” Freedomways 6 (1966): 14-19.

———. Trouble in Mind: A Comedy-Drama in Two Acts. 1955. Black Theater: A 20th Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights. Ed. Lindsay Patterson. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1971. 137-74.

———. Wine in the Wilderness. 1969. Plays by and About Women. Ed. Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch. New York: Random House, 1973. 379-421.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Whose Story Is It, Anyway? Feminist and Anti-Racist Appropriations of Anita Hill.” Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 402-40.

Curb, Rosemary. “An Unfashionable Tragedy of American Racism: Alice Childress's Wedding Band.Melus 7.4 (1980): 57-68.

Curtis, L. P., Jr. Anglo-Saxons and Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England. Bridgeport, CT: Conference on British Studies, 1968.

Diamond, Elin. “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism.” TDR 32.1 (1988): 82-94.

———. “Mimesis, Mimicry, and the True-Real.” Modern Drama 32.1 (1989): 58-72.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

Forte, Jeanie. “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright—a Problem of Reception.” Modern Drama 32.1 (1989): 115-27.

France, Rachel, ed. A Century of Plays by American Women. New York: Richards Rosen, 1979.

Gallagher, Brian. “About Us, for Us, Near Us: The Irish and Harlem Renaissances.” Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 16.4 (1981): 14-26.

Gelb, Arthur. “Review of Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress.” New York Times 5 November 1955: 23.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Harris, Trudier. “Alice Childress.” Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 38. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 66-79.

Hatch, James, ed. Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans, 1847-1974. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race.” Signs 17.2 (1992): 251-74.

Hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Kerr, Walter. Review of Wedding Band. New York Times 5 November 1972, section 2: 323.

Lubiano, Wahneema. “Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means.” Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 323-63.

———. “But Compared to What? Reading Realism, Representation, and Essentialism in School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and the Spike Lee Discourse.” Black American Literature Forum 25.2 (1991): 253-82.

Newton, Judith, and Deborah Rosenfelt. “Toward a Materialist-Feminist Criticism.” Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture. Ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt. New York: Methuen, 1985. xv-xxxix.

Nothing but the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism. London Against Racism Campaign. London: Information on Ireland, 1984.

O'Casey, Sean. The Shadow of a Gunman. Three Plays. 1925. London: Macmillan, 1972. 75-130.

Oliver, Edith. “Review of Wedding Band.New Yorker 4 November 1972: 105.

Patraka, Vivian M. “Binary Terror and Feminist Performance: Reading Both Ways.” Discourse 14.2 (1992): 163-85.

Reinelt, Janelle. “Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama.” Theatre Journal 38.2 (1986): 154-63.

Watt, Douglas. “Wedding Band a Pat Period Play.” New York Daily News 27 November 1972. Reprinted New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 1972.

West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Wiley, Catherine. “Whose Name, Whose Protection: Reading Alice Childress's Wedding Band.Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Ed. June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990. 184-97.

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Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4176

SOURCE: “The ‘Blight of Legalized Limitation’ in Alice Childress's Wedding Band,” in Law and Literature Perspectives, edited by Bruce L. Rockwood, Peter Lang, 1996, pp. 39-51.

[In the following essay, Billingslea-Brown considers the impact of anti-miscegenation laws on the lives of the characters in Childress's Wedding Band.]

Between American jurisprudence and literary expression by African Americans, there is multifaceted relationship, one that has at its center questions of freedom and identity. It may be argued, in fact, that the impulse to creative expression by African Americans arises, in part, from the need to legitimize the human and cultural identity of the African on American soil.1 In the legal history of the United States, that collective human identity, from the colonial period to Dred Scott and Jim Crow, has been constructed in particular ways.

Without doubt, there have been seminal instances where law for people of African origin and descent has been an instrument for constructive social change. More frequently, law has been, as Haywood Burns asserts, the vehicle by which generalized racism was made particular and converted into standards and policies of subjugation and social control (1973, 157). African American literature has offered a critique of that control, interrogating and reconceptualizing freedom and identity, as formulated by law, for African Americans. This [essay] examines the dramatic representation of the legal and sociocultural mechanisms of subjugation and control in Alice Childress's Wedding Band (1973). In particular it explores how anti-miscegenation laws, bolstered by tradition and authority, regiment the lives of both black and white characters, constraining collective and individual quests for freedom, dignity, and identity.

Subtitled “A Love/Hate Story in Black and White” Wedding Band is a play which situates struggle and contradiction in the very polarities it sets forth and displaces. It is a play about legalized segregation and illegal interracial relations. It is a play about the ideology of white supremacy and the complexities of ethnic, communal bonding. Julia Augustine, an “attractive, brown woman about thirty-five” is a seamstress who has maintained a ten-year liaison with a white baker, Herman, a greying “strong, forty-year old working man.” The setting is South Carolina in 1918, a time when it was “unlawful for any white man to intermarry with any woman of either the Indian or Negro races, or any mulatto, mestizo, or half-breed, or for any white woman to intermarry with any person other than a white man.”2 Ultimately the play is about identity, dignity, and what Childress herself calls the “blight of legalized limitation.”3

For ten years, Julia has maintained her relationship with Herman on the hope and the vague intent of going North where they would be allowed to marry. On their tenth anniversary, Herman brings Julia a wedding band on a gold chain but becomes suddenly ill while still in her house. With the help of her neighbor Mattie and her landlord Fanny, Julia summons Herman's mother and sister and arranges to get him, under the cover of night, away from her house to a doctor. In the process, Julia and Frieda, Herman's mother, have a hateful confrontation which ends with Julia's forcefully dismissing the entire family, Herman included, from her house. Herman returns the next day, deathly ill from influenza, but carrying steamboat tickets for passage North. After a series of events forces an honest confrontation between the two as racial and historical beings, Herman dies in Julia's arms. Before his death, Julia creates for him the image of their final departure on a steamboat North.

The situation, the characters, and the action in Wedding Band all spring from the historical period. The year, 1918, was not only the year of the devastating influenza or “swine flu” epidemic which claimed more than 11 million lives, but also the year before the infamous “red summer”. Triggered in part by the return of black soldiers whose European experience in World War I had thrown into sharp relief the de facto and de jure segregation in the United States, the “red summer” of 1919 was so named for the more twenty race riots in cities across the nation and the rampant lynchings of black men4 several of them soldiers in uniform. Through a dramatic situation drawn from history and focused through history, the play delineates how law regiments social identity and constrains personal freedom.

Alice Childress has explained that part of her intent in Wedding Band was to point out and explore “[the] thousands of state laws on the books which shape our lives and the opinions formed about us” (Childress 1966, 17). With regard to what she calls “anti-woman” laws, she perceives that black women have been particularly oppressed, “… degraded by law, and by popular opinion which was shaped and formed by that law” (19). How popular opinion and law control Julia's experience and her ten-year relationship with Herman resonates throughout the text. Because of popular opinion, she has had to move frequently within the Carolina town. Soon after she moves to Fanny's “backyard” community, she explains to her new neighbors, Lula and Mattie,

Always movin' one place to another, lookin' for some peace of mind … One year I was in such a lovely colored neighborhood, but they couldn't be bothered with me, you know? … And that's why I thought yall wanted to tear my house down this mornin' … 'cause you might-a heard 'bout me and Herman …

(Childress 1973, 91)

Julia's account of her displacement and alienation delineates how law, in the service of anti-miscegenetic ideology, carries the accent of popular opinion; and how popular opinion, as Childress herself discerns, is influenced and shaped by law. Julia understands all too well the power of popular opinion when she explains, “some people … well they judge, they can't help judgin' you” (91).

A near-nomadic existence has enabled Julia to evade legal prohibitions. But when she confesses to Mattie and Lula that her relation with Herman is not one of financial exploitation, that if permitted to do so legally, they would marry, she is not able to escape communal disapproval. She finds herself confronted with familiar responses. Suddenly Lula must leave to cut her paper roses and Mattie has to make a batch of candy. After their embarrassed, hasty departures, Julia thinks to herself,

… that's always the way. What am I doing standin' in a backyard explainin' my life. Stay to yourself, Julia Augustine. Stay to yourself.

(Childress 1973, 92)

In this new community, as in the others, Julia has acquired a certain “exilic status” which raises for her critical questions of identity. In relation to law, to miscegenation statues in particular, Julia's identity as a ‘Negro woman’ means one thing—most notably her inability to marry a white man. In Fanny's ‘backyard’ community, however, it is not Julia's identity as a ‘Negro woman’ which is problematic. Rather it is her identity as a Negro woman in intimate relation with a white man. Although to Herman she is the “brown girl in the pretty shirt-waist,” it is precisely her identity in relation to him which constitutes her status as “outsider within” (Hill-Collins 1986, 514). In other words, the boundaries of her identity are being continually repositioned in relation to varying points of reference.5 The inevitability and the necessity of multiple, shifting identities delineate how Julia, like black women throughout history, must continually negotiate the ideological strictures and legal strategies which restrict and regiment her life.

Regimentation and the struggle against regimentation resonate throughout the text, suggesting that while legal strategies for subjection and domination constitute a major part of what may be called “systemic oppression,” the domination is never absolute and always carries with it the seeds of its own subversion. The ideology which privileges human dignity manages to resist legalized assaults on that dignity and subvert the ideology of racial superiority and exclusivity. In the strategic moment that opens the second act, the text delineates how law enters and functions in that process.

As the scene opens, Herman has been stricken with influenza and lies in Julia's bed in a “heavy, restless sleep.” Julia expresses her anxiety to Mattie and Fanny and wants to call a doctor.

JULIA. He's had too much paregoric. Sleeping his life away. I want a doctor.

FANNY. Over my dead body. It's against the damn law for him to be laying up in a black woman's bed.

MATTIE. A doctor will call the police.

FANNY. They'll say I run a bad house.

JULIE. I'll tell them the truth.

MATTIE. We don't tell things to police.

(Childress 1973, 104)

Fanny's refusal to allow Julia to call a doctor and Mattie's quiet declaration, “We don't tell things to police,” demonstrate a particular strategy for resistance and subversion: that of withholding knowledge and information to destabilize established bases of authority (Davies 1994, 108). And here the resistance, which occurs on the level of both speech and action, is negation. It is not so much what these women do, but what they do not do, not what they say, but what they do not say that constitutes the mechanism for destabilization. Equally important, in decentering and destabilizing authority, they assert an identity based on agency rather than victimization.

The authority and legitimacy of the doctor and the police who would be white and male are circumvented by two black women, Mattie and Fanny, who essay to induct a third, Julia, into the politics of evasion and resistance. In this way, the play articulates the dialogic interaction between those “models of legitimacy” entrusted to uphold law as “universal, transcendent truth” and those who resist “legalized limitation.”

Since she is not allowed to call a doctor herself, Julia suggests a slightly different alternative.

JULIA. I'll hire a hack and take him to a doctor.

FANNY. He might die on you. That's police. That's the workhouse.

JULIA. I'll say I found him on the street.

FANNY. Walk into the jaws of the law and they'll chew you up.

(Childress 1973, 104-105)

The image of the law as voracious entity ready to devour those in violation references the view that for African Americans, the dominant experience of law is that of victim (Burns 1973, 156). In relation to Herman, Fanny's comment expresses a particular irony, especially with regard to the laws which make it illegal for him to be in a black woman's bed. As Childress has explained, miscegenation statues were enacted, in great part, to “protect white [male] southerners from the legal claims of half-black children, some of whom were the only offspring of their white master” (1966, 15). The irony is that the laws enacted to exonerate white males from the consequences of cohabitation with black women are the very ones which endanger Herman's life.

When Julia insists for a final time on calling a doctor, trying to convince Fanny of the real danger Herman is in, Fanny's response shows yet another way they are all constrained by law.

Do it, we'll have yellow quarantine sign on the front door—“INFLUENZA.” Doctor'll fill out papers for the law. addresses … race … No, you call a doctor, Nelson won't march in the parade tomorrow or go back to the army. Mattie'll be outta work, Lula can't deliver flowers

(Childress 1973, 105).

To circumvent the laws criminalizing black-white cohabitation, Julia, Fanny and Mattie risk violating yet another law, that which requires influenza victims to be quarantined. As forms of control and subjugation, both written and unwritten laws assume a colonizing function. Not only is everyone affected by Julia's and Herman's violation, but the effects are multiple and the violation carries consequences for the entire backyard community. Julia's submissive response after Fanny's tirade, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm the one breakin' laws” inscribes how law militates against her not only economically and socially, but psychically. She feels guilt for the hardships her actions bring upon her neighbors.

While Wedding Band, according to Childress, is about “black women's rights,” the particular ways in which legal systems enable and reinforce patriarchal forms of relations for both black and white women are also delineated in the play. Childress explains why.

… The play shows society's determination to hold the black woman down through laws framed against her. There are similar laws framed against white women, and of course, unwritten laws. I never run out of subject matter for writing about women's rights—particularly black women, but white women too which I included. …

(quoted. in Curb 1980, 59)

Patriarchal authority as reflected in law is experienced differently for black and white women. Just as the black woman's experience of racist law is gender-specific and different from that of black men, the white woman's experience of patriarchy is shaped by class and ethnicity. For Frieda, Herman's mother, class and ethnicity are very significant power mechanisms circumscribing her life. It is through her characterization and that of her daughter, Annabelle, that the play articulates the complexity and contradiction in the experience of the southern white woman.

First of all, as the daughter of white sharecroppers, Frieda is concerned principally with economic and social advancement. It is because of social aspirations that she uses her second name, Thelma, to disguise her German ethnicity. At the same time, she is clearly a white supremacist. As indicated by the epithets she hurls at Julia, she accepts the most denigrating stereotypes about blacks. More important, to gain social acceptance, she forces Herman at age five to memorize and recite a speech by John C. Calhoun for the Knights of the Gold Carnation, or the K.K.K. At Herman's bedside, she reminisces,

… When he wasn't but five years old I had to whip him so he'd study his John C. Calhoun speech … Yes indeed, for recitin' that John C. Calhoun speech … Herman won first mention and a twenty dollar gold piece.

(Childress 1973, 116)

Her attitude about law, especially to the degree it upholds white privilege, is to obey. “Live by the law. Follow the law—law, law of the Land,” she tells Herman on his deathbed. Jim Crow laws and anti-miscegenation laws legitimize Frieda's personal “truths” and so she uses one of those “truths,” that of the supposedly universal human preference for sameness, to justify her supremacist views on race and to assuage her fear of difference. “There's something wrong about mismatched things, be they shoes, socks or people,” she tells Herman.

In the most succinct expression of her “truth” and her sense of “power over,” she tells Julia, “I'm as high over you as Mount Everest over the sea. White reigns supreme … I'm white and you can't change that.” However, moments before in a confidential revelation to her daughter, Annabelle, she expresses feelings of powerlessness, resentment and deep disappointment.

I put up with a man breathin' stale whiskey in my face every night … pullin and pawin' at me … always tired, inside and out … Gave birth seven … five-a them babies couldn't draw breath.

(Childress 1973, 117)

While Frieda manipulates ideologies of racial superiority and exclusion to exercise power and control over Julia, she is herself manipulated by ideologies of class and sexuality which regulate her own choices. Her inability to recognize the operation of power in these systems is not lost on Herman. In her defense, he explains to Julia,

My mother is made out of too many … little things … the price of carrots, how much fat is on the meat … little things make people small.

(Childress 1973, 106)

As Julia's and Frieda's experiences are shaped by ideological systems reflected in law, so are Mattie's. Deserted by her abusive first husband, Mattie marries as second time, despite the fact that state laws do not permit divorce. Because she does not have “papers” attesting to the legality of her second marriage, Mattie is denied her husband's military benefits, the allotment that would be sent to her from his service in the Merchant Marines.

For Mattie, the “blight of legalized limitation” manifests itself in particular forms of economic and social deprivation. Economic deprivation, at one point, had necessitated her taking a job as laundress in a house ill-repute, causing her social standing within her community to suffer. Mattie nevertheless challenges the category of legal authority with regard to marriage and does it ironically by using tradition. As a total complex of norms, values, ideas, and patterned behavior constituting culture, tradition, like law, signifies authority. Sociologist Orlando Patterson, in fact, has suggested that law is sometimes dependent on tradition for authority (1982, 37).

Although she knows full well that her first marriage has not been legally dissolved, Mattie uses the authority of tradition to challenge the authority of law and to claim legitimacy for her second marriage. “We was married,” she tells Julia, “on Edisto Island. I had a white dress and flowers … Everything but papers. We couldn't get papers.” When Julia reminds her, “You can't marry without papers,” Mattie response is,

Reading from the Bible makes people married, not no piece paper. We're together eleven years, that oughta-a be legal [my emphasis].

(Childress 1973, 122)

With the suggestion that tradition, that is reading from the Bible, could or should transform law, Mattie's assertion articulates the dialogic interaction between the two. Just as law stands in opposition to tradition, tradition undermines law with each challenging, penetrating, and carrying the accent of the other. In other words, although law may seek authority in tradition, it is entirely possible for tradition to struggle for the same authority as law.

Law, tradition and authority, for Lula and her adopted son, Nelson, a black soldier in the south of 1918, operate differently. For Nelson, white supremacists groups like the Knights of the Gold Carnation and the K.K.K. embody authority. For these groups, the black male body in particular is a target of power and control. Fanny recounts to Julia in the first scene that local whites had thrown a pail of dirty water on Nelson the day before, apparently for being in uniform and displaying a “bodily rhetoric of honour.”6

Demonstrating the manifestations of control, not just on the body, but on the psyche as well, Fanny blames Nelson for the attack. “A black man on leave got no right to wear his uniform in public … that's flauntin' yourself” (Childress 1973, 80-81). Likewise when Nelson attempts to explain his anger to Lula, “Mama, you supposed to get mad when somebody throw a pail-a water on you,” her response is, “it's their country and their uniform, so just stay out-a the way.” In the second act when Nelson accosts the white salesman, the Bellman, for walking into his mother's house without knocking, the Bellman tells him, “Don't let your uniform go to your head, Boy, or you'll end your days swinging from a tree” (Childress 1973, 123).

The mechanisms which make possible the control and subjugation of the black body, through extra-legal means, constitute a matrix of domination which includes not only the ideology of white supremacy, but the authority of tradition. Still the same tradition is used by Nelson's adopted mother, Lula, to subvert the very control mechanisms which at one time threatened her son's life. Years earlier, manipulating the language and mannerisms of the “mammy,” Lula had convinced local whites not to send Nelson to prison. She explains to Julia,

A few years back I got down on my knees in the courthouse to keep him off-a the chain gang. I crawled and I cried, “Please white folks, yall's everything. I'se nothin', yall's everything. I'se nothin', yall's everything.”The court laughed-I meant for ‘em to laugh … then they let Nelson go.

(Childress 1973, 125)

While law, with the authority of tradition, reaches and manipulates bodies, it never completely destroys, for the characters in Wedding Band the possibility of agency or the formation of collective identity. Jim Crow, in fact, encouraged such collective formations for both blacks and whites. In the final scene of the play when Julia gives Mattie the wedding band, the gold chain and the tickets north, she announces, “You and Teeta are my people … my family. Be my family.” Mattie in turn acknowledges and affirms Julia's return to community with the response, “We your people whether we blood kin or not.”

Moments later, Julia affirms the same right to dignity and agency for Annabelle and Frieda. After she has refused them entry to her house and Frieda has threatened to call the police to force her to do so, Julia acknowledges Frieda's freedom and right to act, as a white women, in her own interest.

JULIA. (Not unkindly.) Do whatever you have to do. Win the war. Represent the race. Call the police. (She enters her house, closes the door and bolts it. HERMAN'S MOTHER leaves through the front entry. FANNY slowly follows her.)

(Childress 1973, 133)

Julia's equating “winning the war” with “calling the police” with “representing the race,” situates the intersection of the several ideologies and institutions which assure subjection and impose “relations of docility-utility” upon racial minorities. Having reentered her own racial community, Julia accords Frieda the right to do the same, partly because through her own struggle, she has risen above these institutionally and legally imposed relations of docility.

Although Julia and Herman violate the law, attempt to rise above the law, and in some way transcend the law, it is important to note that they never denounce it. Whereas Mattie advocates transformations of the law, asserting that her eleven-year common-law marriage to October “ought-a be legal,” Julia never suggests anything of the sort. When Herman tells her on his deathbed, “I failed you in every way … I didn't give you my name,” Julia replies, “You couldn't … was the law.” Likewise Herman acknowledges that “whatever is wrong … [it's] not the law” (Childress 1973, 131). Here Alice Childress's statement of intent with regard to her representation of marriage law in the play is illuminating.

In order to deal effectively with the problems created by marriage laws, it was necessary to make sure that the play not be interpreted as one which advocates the inter-marriage of races … Therefore no character could plead the cause of inter-marriage and none suggest the changing of law.

(1967, 20)

The fact that both Herman and Julia, though in violation of the law, still respect the law translates the play's ultimate statement on law as perhaps the principle power mechanism society uses to control certain forms of extrovert human behavior, interracial sexual behavior in particular. Childress explains more specifically,

The story of Wedding Band gradually took shape as the result of a reaction to hearing that old chestnut quoted time and time again—“The two free-est things in the country are the black woman and the white man.” The more often it was repeated the more often I wondered what kind of freedom the originator of that remark had in mind.

(1967, 18)

On many levels, Wedding Band is an exploration of that “kind of freedom.” It is a freedom that may transcend law, authority and tradition. It is a freedom that frequently arises from resistance, solidarity, and agency. It is the peculiar freedom Julia associates with “dignity.”

HERMAN. What's dignity? Tell me. Do it.

JULIA. Well, it … it … It's a feeling—It's a spirit that rises higher than the dirt around it, without any by-your-leave. It's not proud and it's not ‘shamed. Dignity “Is”. …

(Childress 1986, 98)

Notes

  1. In the preface to her bibliography, Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, 2d ed. (Atlanta: First World Publishers, 1981), Carolyn Fowler advances the notion that African American art legitimizes the human and cultural identity of African Americans

  2. See Pauli Murray, ed. States' Laws on Race and Color (Cincinnati: Women's Division of Christian Service, 1952), 417.

  3. Alice Childress, “Why Talk about That?” Negro Digest (April 1967): 21. With regard to the necessity of protesting laws which infringe on civil rights, Childress writes, “Those conscious of living in the blight of legalized limitation will continue to be engrossed in the controversy of ‘to be or not to be’ … free.” [my emphasis] Hereafter references to this article will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  4. See David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Random House, 1979), 17-20.

  5. This is an appropriation of Stewart Hall's statement on “boundaries of difference” quoted in Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1994), 154. Subsequent references to this text will be cited parenthetically.

  6. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, Trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1979), 35.

Works Cited

Burns, Haywood. 1973. “Black People and the Tyranny of American Law.” Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science 407 (May): 156-66.

Childress, Alice et al. 1966. “The Negro Woman in American Literature.” Freedomways (1st Quarter): 15-19.

Childress, Alice. 1967. “Why Talk about that?” Negro Digest (April): 17-21.

Childress, Alice. 1973 (1986). Wedding band. In Nine Plays by Black Women. Ed. Margaret Wilkerson. New York: New American Library.

Curb, Rosemary. 1980. “An Unfashionable Tragedy of American racism: Alice Childress's Wedding Band.” MELUS 7: 57-68.

Davies, Carole Boyce. 1994. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House.

Fowler, Carolyn. 1981. “By Way of Preface: Balancing on the Brink.” Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography. Atlanta: First World.

Hill-Collins, Patricia. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Social Problems 6 (December): 514-532.

Lewis, David Levering. 1979. When Harlem was in vogue. New York: Random House.

Murray, Pauli, ed. 1952. States' Laws on Race and Color. Cincinnati: Women's Division of Christian Service.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Beth Turner (essay date Spring 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5293

SOURCE: “Simplifyin': Langston Hughes and Alice Childress Re/member Jesse B. Semple,” in Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 37-48.

[In the following essay, Turner compares the history and nature of Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly and Childress's Just a Little Simple in order to gain insight into the “complex nature of Black comedic representation.”]

Dream-singers all,—
                    My people.
Story-tellers all,—
My people.
                    Dancers—
God! What dancers!
                    Singers—
God! What singers!
Singers and dancers
Dancers and laughers
.....Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands
of Fate.

(Hughes 1995, 27-8)

For African Americans, comedic representation on the stage, in film and in television often elicits a myriad of complex reactions. At the core of the problem are the nearly sixty years of commercial minstrelsy (1830s—1890s) during which more than one hundred professional Blackface minstrel troupes and untold numbers of amateur groups mocked Black bodies, gestures and folk mores on stages across the United States. In New York City, which at one point had ten resident minstrel companies (Engle xix), professional blackface performance on the legitimate stage continued well into the twentieth century. Al Jolson still blacked up for an appearance in Bombo in 1921; George Jessel did the same for the 1925 stage production of The Jazz Singer. Thus, minstrelsy “helped to create and to fix the Negro stereotypes—passive or scheming, over-dull or over shrewd, but always irresponsible and caricatured—which have burdened our theatre ever since” (Isaacs 27).

Haunted by minstrelsy's specter, even African American comedic writers found themselves dancing on shingles as they tried to create Black comedic images that were hilarious but inoffensive. Lampooning and parodying of physical appearance, folk mores and Black vernacular, so excessively abused by minstrelsy, were particularly sensitive areas, especially in comedy presented before white audiences. One of the few twentieth century Black playwrights to shoulder the task of embracing Black folk culture and language through comedy was Langston Hughes. According to scholar Ropo Sekoni, Hughes' desire to reclaim and reaffirm previously maligned images of Blacks, particularly in his Jesse B. Semple stories, positioned him as a precursor to current postmodernist critical and artistic conceptualization. Says Sekoni, “The enactment of postmodernist sensibility in the Semple stories is attempted at the level of both content and form (65) … Individual tales reveal themes about specific aspects of postmodernist cultural and aesthetic behavior. One of such themes is the notion of the crisis of representation” (67). Like Carlyle Brown, Breena Clarke, Glenda Dickerson and other playwrights in Colored Contradictions, Harry J. Elam, Jr.'s, and Robert Alexander's recently published anthology of contemporary African American plays, Langston Hughes also “seized the opportunity to compose alternative histories, to control … representations, and to expose and interrogate the misrepresentation of African American culture and history proposed and imposed by the dominant culture” (3).

Although Hughes devoted most of his literary life to proclaiming his love of Black folk and culture, his reclaiming of previously stereotyped behavior in his folk comedy based on the Simple stories, Simply Heavenly, still opened him to criticism by African Americans. Yet Black playwright Alice Childress (1916-1994), writing in the same period, used Hughes' comic folk hero, Jesse B. Semple, to create Just a Little Simple which, paradoxically, was acclaimed by the Harlem community. A comparison of the history and the nature of the two plays offers important insights into the complex nature of Black comedic representation.

The Simple stories, upon which the plays of both Langston Hughes and Alice Childress were based, had been written by Hughes for his Chicago Defender column “From Here to Yonder.” Although the first columns, which started 21 November 1942, were essays devoted to such topics as the determination of the American Red Cross “to prevent ‘black’ blood from entering ‘white’ bloodbanks” (Rampersad 2: 55), on 19 January 1943, Hughes attempted a new type of column. Inspired by an encounter in a neighborhood bar, Hughes wrote a dialogue entitled “Conversation at Midnight” in which he introduced a character known only as “My Simple-minded Friend.”

When “Conversation at Midnight” was published on 13 February 1943, little did anyone suspect that the character, who Hughes eventually named Jess(e) B. Semple and nicknamed Simple, would become “the most memorable single figure to emerge from black journalism” (Rampersad 1995: 33). For the next twenty-three years, Simple continued to appear in the Chicago Defender, and eventually in other newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Post, until Hughes stopped writing the column on 18 January 1966.

Hughes' original purpose in using the Simple character was to communicate to Black Americans the importance of supporting the war effort against the Axis nations (Germany, Italy and Japan) even in the face of racial injustices at home. In his first appearance, Hughes' Simple Minded Friend said:

“I want to beat Jim Crow first … Hitler's over yonder, Jim Crow is here.”

And Hughes' unnamed straight man, or foil, replied:

“But if the Nazis ever got over here, and Hitler and Jim Crow ever got together, you would have an awful time beating the two of them … They would have curfew laws for Negroes—just like they have curfew laws for Jews in Germany … The fascists won't let Negroes stay up late.”

“Then I will fight the fascists,” said my Simple Minded Friend. “I will even get up early to fight for the right to stay up late. Damned if I won't!”.

(Hughes 1943)

In the ensuing months and years, however, Simple expressed opinions on innumerable aspects of African American life including indecent housing, police treatment, unemployment, post-war job lay-offs, racial harmony and global peace, as well as love, marriage, divorce and other domestic issues. By and large, most of these topics continued to be couched in lively, folksy philosophizing between Simple and his intellectual writer friend. As Hughes said, “It is just myself talking to me. Or else me talking to myself. That has been going on for a number of years … [C]oncerning my Simple Minded Friend, I have developed this inner discussion into two characters … We are both colored, American and Harlemized. And we both possess that unity and race-consciousness characteristic of the American Negro” (1945: 349).

As Simple's conversations continued to appear in the columns, this “latter day Aesop” (Clarke, 167) began to develop as a character. Readers eventually learned that Simple was a migrant from rural Virginia who described himself as “big and black and burley” (Hughes 1944). In the course of time, he also gathered around him a substantial number of other Harlem folks—his almost too virtuous girl friend Joyce; the temptress, Zarita; the bartender Hopkins; his bellicose landlady, his disgruntled first wife, Isabel, and the ubiquitous narrator.

The stories became so popular that in April 1950, Simon and Schuster published a collection of forty-five of them under the title, Simple Speaks His Mind. Jesse B. Semple, journalism's most famous Harlemite, became an instant sensation in Harlem. Playwright Loften Mitchell recalls that “Negroes in Harlem read Simple Speaks His Mind and they loved it. They laughed and cried at the same time. At party after party, you would hear Simple quoted” (145).

Ruth Jett, then Executive Director of a Harlem-based artist advocacy organization, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, recalls attending such a gathering at a friend's house in Westchester. “The book had just come out and we were sitting around reading it out loud and we were rolling on the ground. So somebody said, ‘This would make a great evening in the theater … We thought of Alice [Childress] immediately. … I called Langston Hughes.’ Hughes agreed to meet with them to discuss the project. When they met, Jett believes that “Alice went with us” (Jett).

Alice Childress was so taken with Hughes' Simple stories that not only did she develop Just a Little Simple based on them, but she also wrote a column, “Here's Mildred,” for Paul Robeson's publication, Freedom, that “bore the influential markings of Hughes serialization of Jesse B. Semple” (Jennings 8). In 1956, her columns, featuring a wise and self-affirming domestic worker, were also gathered into a collection entitled Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life.

Because Just a Little Simple was going to be the first production attempted by The Committee, they decided that the Simple sketches should be bolstered by the inclusion of Childress' first dramatic work, Florence, a one-act that had been successfully produced by the American Negro Theatre the year before in 1949. Ruth Jett says, “We knew [Florence] was a good vehicle for acting and we said ‘This would make a grounded evening,’ because [Just a Little Simple] was totally experimental.” Several songs, a dance number choreographed and performed by Donald McKayle, and another one-act play, Grocery Store, by Les Pines, completed the bill.

Just a Little Simple opened at the Club Baron Theatre on Lenox Avenue and 132nd Street in September 1950. Kenneth Manigault played Simple. The Hughes-like writer/narrator in the Simple stories was turned into a bartender who was played by Maxwell Glanville. The rest of the cast of fifteen included Bill Robinson, Clarice Taylor and Hilda Haynes. The play was directed by John Proctor and produced by Ellsworth Wright.

Just a Little Simple caught on immediately. Loften Mitchell recalls, “It was obvious to all that Harlem had another hit show” (147). The radical press came, reviewed it and helped spread the word. John Hudson Jones wrote in the Daily Worker, “I have at last spent an enjoyable evening in the theatre. I wasn't embarrassed. I laughed. Everybody laughed. What I saw was part of my life as a Negro today—with all its laughter, tears, fears, bitterness, fight back and hope” (1950).

Also, importantly, “Langston loved it. He would sit back and chuckle,” says Ruth Jett. Moreover, Langston Hughes' biographer Arnold Rampersad writes that “the success of [Childress'] Simple, casually and modestly built,” encouraged Hughes to attempt his own version (2:186). But the comedy Hughes completed, some three years later, was vastly different from the play that had inspired him.

In 1957, in a characteristically warm gesture, Hughes offered tickets to playwright Alice Childress to see his new comedy, Simply Heavenly which was opening on May 21st at the 85th Street Playhouse in New York. Hughes was probably quite eager to hear Childress' response since “he had enjoyed” her play, Just a Little Simple, written seven years earlier (Rampersad 2: 232).

However, after watching Simply Heavenly, Childress shot back a three-page single-spaced letter to Hughes in which she told him, “I attended the performance and was disturbed and bewildered by what I saw” (1957: 1). She then briefly mentioned several areas of concern centering upon what to her were troublesome representations of African American life, culture, and middle-class aspirations. Her comments foreshadowed similar criticism that Simply Heavenly and other Hughes' comedies have attracted across the years. But how had Childress, using Hughes' own comic material, managed to negotiate the labyrinthine intricacies of African American humor in which Hughes himself seemingly had become disoriented?

While Langston Hughes and Alice Childress both used the Simple stories as the basis for their plays, several important differences existed. Childress based Just a Little Simple on Hughes' first collection of Simple stories, Simple Speaks His Mind. As inferred from the title, this collection is largely devoted to Simple's common sense wisdom about such topics as the “probable results of the war, blatant racial injustice in the South and the North … colored hotels and restaurants, black pride and unity … [and] the law” (Hawthorne 2). He also talked occasionally about male/female relationships and domestic issues such as separation and divorce but, Simple's voice, in this first collection of stories, is clearly socially activist, even radical, and occasionally quite militant.

For instance, in the story “Possum, Race, and Face,” Simple starts out reminiscing about his childhood in the South, and then in his typical fashion segues seamlessly into the main topic on his mind: colonialism, and the domination of the world by white people. Simple, who is not a regular church-goer, finally says:

“Anyhow, the next time I go to church, I am going to pray for the Lord to give back some of this world to colored folks.”

(Hughes 1950: 221-22)

When rebuffed by the narrator who suggests instead that he ought to pray “to have the spirit of co-operation enter into everybody's soul so that we all could build a decent world together,” Simple shoots back:

“If I was to pray what is in my mind, I would pray for the Lord to wipe white folks off the face of the earth. Let 'em go! Let 'em go! And let me rule awhile!”

(Hughes 1950: 222)

Laughter quickly returns as Simple outlines his ludicrous plans for ruling the world; but his fantasized prayer for the eradication of the white population is one of the most radical statements in print in pre-1960s America.

In “Possum …” and in other Simple Speaks His Mind stories, Hughes revealed signs of his 1930s radical leanings, which he had recently eschewed “not on ideological grounds, but as an impractical involvement that endangered his career as a writer … His belief in radical socialism had become clandestine but remained strong” (Rampersad 1: 375). While he had taken extraordinary public steps to distance himself from the radical left, “the more acclaimed and confident he became in the middle 1940s, the more he tended to forget the troubles that radicalism had brought him” (Rampersad 2:92-93). Thus, in the stories that would come to comprise Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple occasionally voiced very radical thoughts amidst the congenial, beer-lubricated bar conversations with his writer friend.

However, as the 1940s progressed and the 1950s began, anti-Communist fears reached a fevered pitch in the United States. The House of Representatives' Special Committee on Un-American Activities intensified its scrutiny of Hughes and many other Americanists and activists such as Arthur Miller, Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois. In May 1948, Robeson was called before the Committee (Congressional Committee Hearings Index 1983, 5:5880-1) and eventually had his travel abroad restricted. Worse still, in 1951, the eighty-three year old Du Bois was indicted and briefly handcuffed on the charge of being an “unregistered agent of a foreign principal” merely for distributing the international anti-nuclear Stockholm Peace Pledge in the United States (Rampersad 2:190). Fearful of being subpoenaed himself, Hughes diligently began disengaging himself from leftist rhetoric and causes. Nonetheless, on 26 March 1953, less than two months before the publication of his second volume of Simple stories, Simple Takes a Wife, and just nine months before the completion of his first draft of Simply Heavenly, Hughes was subpoenaed by Senator Joseph McCarthy's powerful Sub-Committee on Investigations. The trauma of this appearance further concertized Hughes' decision to downplay political issues in Simply Heavenly and to foreground Simple's love life instead.

Artistically, Hughes was also in a very different place than he had been in 1950 when Simple Speaks His Mind was published. With his own work eclipsed by the fame of Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and once again by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), Hughes became more interested in the art of narrative prose. While still including stories from his Chicago Defender columns, two-thirds of Simple Takes a Wife was new narrative devoted largely to the vicissitudes of Simple's courtship of his girlfriend Joyce. When he pressed his editor to market the collection as a novel, the publisher partially acquiesced by stating on the dust jacket that “Simple Takes a Wife might be called a novel of Harlem's Rooming-House set” (Hughes 1953). When Hughes used this novelistic volume as basis for his comedy, he was working with material whose tone, content and format were already distant from the source material used by Childress.

Moreover, the comedic intent of the two playwrights was dissimilar. Childress used Simple, primarily as an emcee and a stage manager to glue together and provide comic relief for her production, which included two serious one-act plays: Childress' Florence and Les Pines' Grocery Store. Florence dealt squarely with Jim Crowism, prejudice and racial pride; Grocery Store confronted the dangers which accompanied voter registration in the South with specific reference to threats of lynching and property damage. Interspersed between these weighty dramas, Simple verbally and visually unified and lightened the evening as he exchanged comic barbs with his foil, the bartender.

Even the Simple stories Childress did adapt into skits for the show had sober undercurrents. One of the skits was based on Hughes' story, “When a Man Sees Red.” In it, Simple expounds on underemployment, unionism and Communism. The skit, like the Hughes story, centered around an interrogation by the “Un-American Committee,” a parody that was unnervingly prescient of Hughes' own later appearance before Joseph McCarthy. However, in Hughes' play within a play, the bartender as chairman of the Committee soon finds himself interrogated by Simple:

SIMPLE. All I see Negroes doing is making beds and sweeping out couches. Is that American?

BARTENDER. [Rapping an ice crusher as a pretend gavel.] Yes! Sweeping is American.

SIMPLE. (Sarcastically) Then I want to be un-American so I can run a train.

BARTENDER. (Rap) You must be one of them Red Russians!!

SIMPLE. I ain't neither. I was born down South like you but I do not like ridin' Jim Crow trains. I do not like bein' a pullman porter all the time. I want to run a train.

BARTENDER. (Rap) I know you are a Red Russian! You want to tear this country down.

SIMPLE. I would like to tear half of it down. The South from Virginia to Mobile and when I built it over I would put you in the Jim Crow train!!!

BARTENDER. (Bang) Hold that Nigra in Contempt of Court!

(Childress 1950: 21-22)

Despite the introduction of songs and a dance, and some Harlem folk characters, including Simple's girlfriend, Joyce, the overall tone of Just a Little Simple is clearly racially charged and politically activist.

In contrast, Simply Heavenly was intended to be the most difficult of all genres for the American stage, an African American urban folk comedy. “‘Authentic Negro comedy’ … about the urban folk, which Hughes made his special province, had, in fact, no real dramatic precedent at all” (Sanders 8). Striving to give a full and loving portrayal of Harlem common folk, Hughes developed characters, explored relationships and tried to ease into the narrow interstice between comedy and ridicule, between folk mores and stereotypes in the representation of the African American on the stage. In a direct attempt to assail stereotypes, Hughes dove headlong into one of the most hackneyed examples: Black people and watermelons. Barely ten minutes into the play, Watermelon Joe comes on stage to hawk his watermelons but ends up using them to woo a woman instead:

MAMIE. Well, I been buying watermelons, Joe, for two summers, and I finds your fruits sweeter than you.

MELON. That's because you don't know me well, baby. Besides, I do not use my professional voice in your personal presence:

Wa-ter-melons!

Melons! Melons! Melons!

Sweet as they can be!

Sweet, good Lord!

But they ain't as sweet as me!

Watermelon Joe has got your

Wa-ter—melons!

(He eases up to her cheek.)

Me-lawns … Me-loans … Me-loons!

MAMIE. Man, you better get away from me!

(Hughes 1971: 184)

Suddenly a character that Hughes does not even dignify with a name and describes only as “a little man in nose glasses” who is carrying an umbrella and an armful of “highbrow papers and magazines” (Hughes 1971: 183), rises indignantly.

CHARACTER. Stereotypes! That's all both of you are. Disgraceful stereotypes!

(MAMIE turns on him furiously)

MAMIE. Mister, you better remove yourself from my presence before I stereo your type … I like watermelons, and I don't care who knows it … Why, it's getting so colored folks can't do nothing no more without some other Negro calling you a stereotype … If you like a little gin, you're a stereotype. You got to drink Scotch. If you wear a red dress, you're a stereotype … Lord have mercy, honey, do-don't like no blackeyed peas and rice! Then you're a down-home Negro for true—which I is—and proud of it!

(Hughes 1971: 184)

It was precisely this passage that galvanized Childress's adverse reaction to the play. Not only was Hughes dredging up a despised stereotype, but he was also positing it as a denied right. In an 8 June 1957 letter to Hughes, Childress says,

“Gin and watermelon is [sic] as much a part of white America's diet as any other food and drink, and yet I got the feeling that it was a part of Negro Culture and we had been shamed into denying it … Most restaurants and bars in the South do not allow Negroes to sit down and eat anything, and whatever melons or gins may be sold are there for white customers only.”

Clearly Hughes' reappropriation of the stereotyped image of African Americans with watermelon and gin was lost on Childress, whose focus was more activist. For Childress, the Civil Rights struggle for equal rights was paramount. Thus, she was also deeply offended by the rest of Mamie's monologue: “I didn't come here to Harlem to get away from my people. I come here because there's more of ‘em. I loves my race. I loves my people. Stereotype!” (Hughes 1971: 184).

Again Childress protested in her June 8th letter:

A white man sitting next to me broke out in applause … and kept repeating ‘Right, right, they want to be close to their own!’ I had the feeling that he was definitely reserving the same right for himself. Many Negroes have had homes bombed in ‘white’ areas. Autherine Lucy was stoned for trying to attend a ‘white’ school. We know that they were not trying to ‘be’ with whites or be white. Can we afford to have the public think of them as snobbish strivers who should have remained in the ghetto?”

(1957: 2)

Clearly Simply Heavenly was not the protest comedy that Childress preferred. However, Hughes' intent differed from Childress'. “Hughes' project in Simply Heavenly was to insist on the viability of black culture on the mainstream stage; this comedy was not written for black audiences only” (Sanders 10). Hoping to create a Black urban folk comedy for successful commercial production, Hughes certainly would not conceive of Simply Heavenly as a vehicle in which to dramatize such stories as “When a Man Sees Red” with Simple's call to tear down part of the South or “Possum, Race and Face” with his call for the annihilation of the white race.

On the other hand, Childress was writing for an audience that she expected to be primarily Black and Harlem-based. They were expected to have a shared sensibility and a shared understanding of the common grievances they jointly encountered in a racist society. Just a Little Simple used both its serious drama and its comedy to address issues of injustice. Her audience did not mind that Simple played the fool as long as he continued to speak forcefully, if exaggeratedly, on the matters of concern.

The authors' abilities to convey their vision to their production teams was also crucial in the eventual outcome of the plays. Just a Little Simple was produced by the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, an ongoing Black artist advocacy group of which Alice Childress was not only a member, but chair of the theater division. Her cast was composed of colleagues and long-time associates. Childress, Kenneth Mannigault, Clarice Taylor, Maxwell Glanville and John Proctor had all been members of the American Negro Theatre in the 1940s. To a great extent, they shared the same artistic goals and activist agenda. Moreover, the production team was all African American, with the exception of the musical composer/lyricist, Robert Lissauer, who was only engaged near the end of the rehearsal period.

On the other hand, Simply Heavenly had been molded under the direction of two producers, both of whom were white. Arnold Perl of Rachel Productions, the first producer, gave Hughes a contract and the first advance Hughes had ever received for one of his dramatic works. However, he who pays the piper, calls the tune. After Hughes finished his second draft in December 1954, Perl decided that the play, which was written as a straight comedy, needed to be a musical. Dave Martin, an accomplished Harlem musician, was hired to collaborate with Hughes on the project. Ironically, by the time they finished the third draft, Perl had gone bankrupt.

Finally, early in 1957, the play was picked up for production by Stella Holt who had already staged Alice Childress' Obie Award-winning Trouble in Mind (1955). It was reconceived as a comedy with music. In the course of the theatrical collaborative process, Hughes' first choice for the lead, Nipsy Russell, was by-passed and Melvin Stewart was signed. The rest of the cast included Claudia McNeill as Miss Mamie; Ethel Ayler as Zarita; and Marilyn Berry as Joyce. Joshua Shelley was hired as director. “As the opening of Simply Heavenly drew near, [Hughes] remained unhappy about the basic interpretation of his play. He had designed it as a flexible vehicle, to be played in a relatively light spirit. But the director and the actors, as if unable to conceive of a dignified comedy of black life, seemed eager to push it toward farce, to drown its undertone of tenderness and natural dignity in raucous laughter” (Rampersad 2: 270-71).

Nonetheless, when it opened, Simply Heavenly received rave reviews. Even New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, while considering the play “disorderly” and certainly not an “academic comedy,” had to concede that “Mr. Hughes is a hospitable writer; and what he has written for the bar scenes is hearty and hilarious, sweet and worldly, comic and realistic. … If it were a tidier show, it probably would be a good deal less enjoyable” (1957: 28).

Still, across time, other voices arose, echoing Childress's concerns. African American, as well as white soldiers, were so offended by the play that S. Randolph Edmonds, who would become known as “The Dean of the Black Academic Theatre” (Hatch 246), had to discontinue his USO production of the play. Edmonds later wrote to Hughes, “The white soldiers did not like the Mississippi scene. The colored soldiers looked upon the characters as stereotypes” (Edmonds 1963). Another such objection, sent to the Worker, commented upon the 1959 television presentation of the play on David Susskind's “Play of the Week” program on Channel 13. The reader protested, “It was for all of us a nauseating thing, a burlesque of the Negro people. … To present a Simply Heavenly at this time greatly hurts the struggle for human rights” (Levine 9).

In the 1920s, scholar/educators W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke had hotly debated the ideal nature and function of African American art. W. E. B. Du Bois stated, “All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists … I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda” (1000). Alain Locke countered, stating that the Black artist should be free to explore a wide range of African American life including its humor and its folkways. Childress and Hughes, in their Simple stories, took up the Du Bois and Locke debate again. Sharing Du Bois' view, Childress used the comedy in Just a Little Simple to protest the conditions of Black life in America. Clearly aligned with Locke's philosophy, Hughes presented Simply Heavenly as an unapologetic celebration of African American urban folk life.

The presentation of folk images of African Americans on the stage, especially in comedy, is a risky endeavor. Even as recently as 1991, a storm raged over the desirability of producing, for the first time ever, Mule Bone (1930), the unfinished collaborative folk play by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who helped spearhead the effort, articulated the reticence of those who opposed the project:

Many black Americans still feel that their precarious political and social condition within American society warrants a guarded attitude toward the way images of their culture are projected. Even a work by two of the greatest writers in the tradition cannot escape these concerns, concerns that would lead some to censorship, presumably because of ‘what white people might think.’

(10 February 1991 1991, sec. 2:5)

For a people yet in the process of reclaiming themselves, of re/membering the beauty of their African image, the minstrel mask still cuts deep. Langston Hughes' and Alice Childress' disagreement over the re/membering of Jesse B. Semple as a dramatic, embodied character for the stage is illustrative of the African American humorist's continuing struggle to strike the delicate balance between life-affirming laughter and soul-diminishing ridicule.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Brooks. “‘Simply Heavenly’ from Langston Hughes Book.” New York Times 22 May 1957: 28.

Childress, Alice. Just a Little Simple, ts. Ruth Jett Collection, New York, 1950.

———. Letter to Langston Hughes. 3 June 1957. The Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Library, New Haven, CT.

Clarke, John Henrik. “Langston Hughes and Jesse B. Semple.” Freedomways 8 (1968): 167-69.

Congressional Information Service, Inc. “79th-82nd Congress (1945-1952).” Congressional Committee Hearing Index 5 (1983): (80) S880-1.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Criteria of Negro Art.” New York: Library of America, 1986. 993-1002.

Edmonds, S. Randolph. Letter to Langston Hughes. 4 July 1963. The Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Library, New Haven, CT.

Elam, Harry J., Jr. “Colored Contradictions in This Postmodern Moment; An Introduction.” Colored Contradictions: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Plays. Eds. Harry J. Elam, Jr. and Robert Alexander. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1996. 1-15.

Engle, Gary D. This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University P, 1978.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Sixty Years after ‘Mule Bone.’” New York Times 24 Feb. 1991, Sunday ed.: 2.

Harper, Donna Akiba Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia; U of Missouri P, 1995.

Hatch, James V. and Ted Shine, eds. Black Theatre U.S.A. Vol. I. New York: Free P, 1996.

Hawthorne, Lucia Shelia. “A Rhetoric of Human Rights in the ‘Simple’ Columns by Langston Hughes.” Diss. Pennsylvania State U, 1971.

Hughes, Langston. “Conversation at Midnight.” Chicago Defender 13 Feb. 1943. National ed.: 14.

———. “Laughers.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Eds. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. New York: Vintage, 1995. 27-28.

———. “On Being Black.” Chicago Defender 8 July 1944. National ed.: 12.

———. “Simple and Me.” Phylon 6 (1945): 349-53.

———. Simple Speaks His Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.

———. “Simply Heavenly. 1957. Black Theater: A 20th Century Collection of the Work of its Best Playwrights. Ed. Lindsay Patterson. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1971.

Isaacs, Edith J. R. The Negro in the American Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts, Inc. 1947.

Jennings, La Vinia Delois. Alice Childress. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Jett, Ruth. Interview. 22 Aug. 1996.

Jones, John Hudson. “Theater-Cabaret in Harlem Thrills First Night Audience.” The Daily Worker 21 Sept. 1950.

Levine, Ben. “Simply Reactionary.” The Worker 3 Jan. 1960: 9.

Mitchell, Loften. Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967.

North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

Rampersad, Arnold. “Langston Hughes: The Man, The Writer, and His Continuing Influence.” Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art and His Continuing Influence, 21-34. Ed. C. James Trotman, ed. New York: Garland, 1995.

———. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford UP, 1986-88.

Sanders, Leslie Catherine. “‘Also Own the Theatre’: Representation in the Comedies of Langston Hughes.” Langston Hughes Review 11.1 (Spring 1992): 6-13.

Additional coverage of Childress's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 8; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 14; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48, 146; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 27, 50, 74; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 15, 86, 96; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 38; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Multicultural, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 4; Drama for Students, Vols. 2, 8; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and Something About the Author, Vols. 7, 48, 81.

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