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.
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.
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.
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.