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Alice Childress 1920–
Black American playwright, novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. Childress's works examine the complexity of relationships between blacks and whites and the various ways blacks survive in contemporary society. She is sharply observant and unsentimental, and uses a strong theatrical sense in both her drama and her fiction. While Childress is considered a talented playwright, her works have been infrequently produced. An early play, Trouble in Mind, deals with a group of black actors rehearsing a white play about blacks. Although it was critically acclaimed as an off-Broadway production and won the 1956 Obie Award, it was never performed on Broadway due to disputes over theme and interpretation which caused Childress to withdraw it. However, it was her first work to be seen outside Harlem, and was a precursor of the black naturalistic plays of the late 1960s. Childress feels she got her dramatic bent from her grandmother, a theatrical storyteller, and from the influences of the Bible, Shakespeare, and black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. As an actress, she was one of the original members of The American Negro Theatre, and later served as a director there for twelve years. Childress turned to writing plays in the late 1940s when a one-act play, Florence, was favorably reviewed for its realistic dialogue and strong characterization. Her first novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, was praised for similar reasons, and has become recognized as a classic portrayal of a young urban heroin addict and his world. Despite a small output, Childress has developed a reputation as a writer of realistic works of quality. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols, 45-48, and Something about the Author, Vol. 7.)
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The author of "Trouble in Mind" is Alice Childress, a writer with a quick eye for the foibles and crotches, the humor and pathos of backstage life in the type of Broadway production that utilizes a predominantly Negro cast.
Miss Childress … has some witty and penetrating things to say about the dearth of roles for Negro actors in the contemporary theatre, the cut-throat competition for these parts and the fact that Negro actors often find themselves playing stereotyped roles in which they cannot bring themselves to believe.
She also has some sharp comments to make about the jumpy state of nerves in the much-investigated entertainment media. But it is all done with good humor and, except for the last [sections of dialogue], manages to avoid any impassioned sermonizing. (p. 23)
Arthur Gelb, in The New York Times (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1955.
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Miss Childress writes with a sharp, satiric touch. Character seems to interest her more than plot. Her characterizations are piercing, her observations devastating. Apparently, she feels the American race problem is a family fight but not in the sense that a Dixiecrat would claim the problem in the South is the South's alone. Miss Childress seems to believe there is a direct relationship between black and white, that these are grandchildren and cousins who are being denied human decency. She, therefore, calls on the nation to reexamine itself morally.
[Her] play, Wedding Band, suggests this in bold terms. Here she deals with an interracial couple that cannot marry because of southern laws. The play reaches a rousing climax when the Negro woman defines for a white woman exactly what the Negro has meant in terms of southern lives. (p. 221)
Wedding Band is, to all who have heard it, an exceptionally well-written, humorous, dramatic piece, positive in its approach and fully deserving a first-rate production. (p. 222)
Loften Mitchell, in The Crisis (copyright 1965 by The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.), April, 1965.
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[Childress's one-act play "String"] was suggested by the Guy de Maupassant story of the Norman peasant Hauchecorne, called "The Piece of String." The short story is concerned with the ironically narrow balance between guilt and innocence, and Maupassant, with that crisply inpersonal cynicism that is almost the crest of Romanticism, treats it with a brief wit and a long compassion. The play does not.
The play in fairness is completely different. Only the memory remains. Miss Childress has set her play at a black block party picnic. The characters are nicely judged. The Cadillac-bar-owning bully, the happily socially weaving bourgeois matrons, and the cryptomiser, accused of theft; these people are part of an incandescently recognizable scene. It was the recognition of that scene that was itself interesting.
The fault of the piece was simply that it was too prolonged for its subject. The Maupassant short story makes its obliquely satiric point in a matter of minutes. The play drags out. It is worth noting, in passing, that short stories very rarely serve well as plays if only because the time span is so different. (p. 37)
Clive Barnes, in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 2, 1969.
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Alice Childress has been, from the beginning, a crusader and a writer who resists compromise. She tries to write about Negro problems as honestly as she can, and she refuses production of her plays if the producer wants to change them in a way which distorts her intentions. (p. 190)
The title [of] Trouble in Mind comes from a blues song of the same name. Alice Childress chose to tell about trouble in a milieu that she knows well—the theatre. The three acts of Trouble in Mind take place during rehearsals in a Broadway theatre…. The play being rehearsed is one about Negroes and whites….
Trouble in Mind has interesting characters and dialogue, though both tend to ring false whenever they are saturated with sermonizing. The setting, the stage of a theatre during rehearsals, invites an audience to participate in a ritual usually forbidden them and therefore tantalizing. The plot amounts to very little—a group of actors rehearse a play, quarrel about interpretation, get the director to agree to ask the playwright to make changes in the script. What lends the play significance is that the cast is predominantly Negro. As attitudes in the company are modified, people's lives are affected, and this play about a rehearsal makes a comment on life itself.
And yet, too much of Trouble in Mind is willed—what the French call voulu. A reader of the script is very much aware of the author pulling strings, putting her own words into a number of mouths. This is not, however, to deny the theatrical effectiveness of the play in production. (p. 203)
To read the play is to be much more aware than [seeing it in production] of the extent to which Miss Childress loaded the play with Negro problems….
It would be better if she did not assault race prejudice at every turn, for she sometimes sacrifices depth of character in the process….
The characters need a humanizing complexity to keep them from ever becoming the stereotypes featured in "Chaos in Belleville" [the play being rehearsed within Childress' play]. (p. 204)
Doris E. Abramson, in her Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925–1959 (copyright © 1967, 1969 Columbia University Press: reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press. 1969.
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Black people have recognized the need for their own theater. To give voice to our esthetic meant that we had to be free of the white man's evaluation, his standards of quality. It goes without saying that this need for our own encompasses much more than just theater, but Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress begins with the hassle of the Black artist. She shows the difficulty of working in the man's theater and maintaining one's integrity and identity. She shows why the Black Arts Movement had to come about. White America doesn't want to know about Black people, she says. They are much more comfortable with the half-human creatures they created and maintained in asinine comedy after comedy. (p. 44)
Donald T. Evans, in Black World (copyright © February, 1971, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Johnson Publishing Company and Donald T. Evans), February, 1971.
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["Wedding Band"] is a romantic play, and does not entirely escape the charge of sentimentality.
The writing is rather old-fashioned in its attempt at Ibsenite realism, and neither the situation nor the characters really change from the beginning of the play to the end. But perhaps that was par for the course in South Carolina in 1918, and the play has a cosy efficiency that always holds the attention. It is a sweet old love story about hard, dusty times in a hard, dusty place.
What did black people think and talk about in 1918? We are so used to the black stereotypes thrust on us by the white literature of the time or to the films of a period just a little later that it is difficult to judge the credibility of a black play deliberately set more than half a century ago, almost midway between Abolition and now.
Miss Childress very carefully suggests the stirrings of black consciousness, as well as the strength of white bigotry. Interestingly, the stirrings are most strongly felt in the young black soldier about to go to France, for it was during this world war and the one that followed it that the seeds of social change were most abundantly implanted. The play also has a great deal of compassion.
Indeed its strength lies very much in the poignancy of its star-cross'd lovers, but whereas Shakespeare's lovers always had a fighting chance, there is no way that Julia and Herman are going to be able to beat the system. Niggers and crackers are more irreconcilable than any Montagues and Capulets.
The background to the lovers—the black neighbors and his white mother and sister—is conventionally drawn. The blacks are more comic than bitter, and the white family is rigidly racist. You just know that the mother would think there was a better use for white sheets than putting them on a bed. But in the two lovers themselves, Miss Childress strikes the note of the genuine playwright….
[The play] does also offer a modest gloss on a period of black history that often goes unremarked. There after all was quite an interregnum between slavery and militancy, and this play is right in there explaining. (p. 30)
Clive Barnes, in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1972.
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["Wedding Band" is a play about] a pair of lovers no longer young. She is black, he is white; she is a seamstress, he is a baker named Herman. The time is 1918, while the United States is still at war, and the place is a city in South Carolina….
Much of the wealth of "Wedding Band" is in the small scenes of byplay among the neighbors. For the most part, Miss Childress … [succeeds] in creating a whole style of life at that time and in that place…. All through the action, things are on the move: two little girls run around and scream and play, a nasty white peddler wanders in and out, and everyone minds everyone else's business, sometimes in a very kind and supportive way. The first act is splendid, but after that we hit a few jarring notes, when the characters seem to be speaking as much for the benefit of us eavesdroppers out front in 1972 as for the benefit of one another. At one point,… [the seamstress], in a farewell toast, talks of her hopes for the future, when blacks will be free to go to "parks and museums." It is a dreadful speech, made straight to the audience, that sounds like something out of a bad Russian movie. Whether these spurts of spuriousness are the fault of the writing … I cannot say, but … they do not spoil the evening. (p. 105)
Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1972 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 4, 1972.
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["Wedding Band" is an] honest and provocative look into black life in America just as World War I was giving way to the Twenties, though it has its vitamin deficiencies as drama…. Using a kind of South Carolina backyard chorus as counterpoint to a private tug-of-war between [a seamstress and her white lover of long standing] …, Miss Childress is at her best with the peripheral figures who lead prayer, read letters for one another, and spy upon the forbidden liaison with generous candor….
The play, as it stands, does little more than illustrate what we have already known: that intermarriage, especially in redneck districts, is apt to be opposed….
[The] play moves only at its edges; the center feels, and is, impotent, a joint surrender rather than a joined battle. (p. 323)
Walter Kerr, in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972.
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[Wedding Band] has an authenticity which, whatever its faults, makes it compelling….
The play's basic theme emerges from the portrayal not only of the bigoted opposition of Herman's family, with its vile Klan spirit, but just as saliently in the suspicion and fear with which the blacks confront the two lovers. Herman, on the verge of death during the influenza epidemic which raged at the time, proves his deep attachment to Julia by buying her a ticket to New York even as he lies helpless, still in the grip of his wretched family. She on the other hand, though convinced of his love and freedom from racial bias, despairs of overcoming the barriers between them.
There is an honest pathos in the telling of this simple story, and some humorous and touching thumbnail sketches reveal knowledge and understanding of the people dealt with. The fact that black and white interrelationships have somewhat changed since 1918 does not make the play less relevant to the present. Constitutional amendments and laws do not immediately alter people's emotions; the divisions and tensions which Wedding Band dramatizes still exist to a far more painful extent than most of us are willing to admit. (p. 475)
Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1972 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 13, 1972.
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There are too few books that convince us that reading is one of the supreme gifts of being human. Alice Childress, in her short, brilliant study of a 13-year-old black heroin user, "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwhich," achieves this feat in a masterly way by telling a real story of the victims of today's worst urban plague, heroin addiction, and it reaffirms the belief that excellent writing is alive and thriving in some black corners of America. (pp. 36, 38)
This surprisingly exciting, entertaining book demystifies the pusher and the problem he sells by centering on the unwitting victim, Benjie, and the disintegration of a black family. With their own voices the people in this story tell the truths of their lives. The writer uses her considerable dramatic talents to expose a segment of society seldom spoken of above a whisper; she exposes the urban disease that hides behind the headlines of drug abuse, the child junkies, drug rehabilitation programs and the problem of sheer survival in the black urban community.
There is a suggestion of hope in this book, but there is also the unconcealed truth…. You don't even have to be heroic to discover it. Just read. (p. 40)
Ed Bullins, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1973.
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In A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, Alice Childress intimately portrays the oppression of the working class people living in Afro-American communities. With fine perception, she tells about thirteen year old Benjie Johnson, a victim of drug addiction, his family, friends and neighbors living in the Harlem ghetto. (pp. 72-3)
Alice Childress has written a moving story that vividly describes life in the ghettos of Black America. It is a grim picture that holds little or no promise for the children's future. (p. 74)
The author has presented an examination of society on the decline in the United States. The salient question regarding the survival of Afro-American children as total human beings can only be answered with positive social changes.
The book has been written with pathos and humor. I highly recommend this fine piece of literature for young adults and older readers. (p. 75)
Norma Rogers, "To Destroy Life," in Freedomways (copyright 1974 by Freedomways Associates, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Freedomways, 799 Broadway, New York, New York, 10003), Vol. 14, No. 1, 1974, pp. 72-5.
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Bill Jameson [in Wine in the Wilderness] is the product of the old black bourgeois values. Sonny-Man and Cynthia are also victims of this old social order. They are educated; They consciously and unconsciously label themselves "better" than Tommy and Oldtimer. They are empty, artificial people, preaching blackness, brotherhood, and love simply because it is in vogue. Innately they are cold, cruel, and self-centered individuals. They are reflections of the old slave masters, imitators of white middle-class, who accept Oldtimer (they don't even know his name) because they find him amusing, and Tommy only because they feel she can be used…. [Bill's] orientation is white; no matter how hard he tries to assert his blackness, it remains surface and insignificant…. The only "real" people in the play are Tommy and Oldtimer. They are both honest, not living under the illusion of false reality. True, Tommy "hopes" that Bill will seriously fall for her, but if he doesn't, she is prepared to move on: "… don't nothin' happen that's not suppose to." She is a sensible woman without pretense. The beauty of Wine in the Wilderness is in part due to the author's sensitive treatment of Tommy, "a poor, dumb chick that's had her behind kicked until it's numb," but whose warmth, compassion, inner dignity, and pride make her more of a woman than Cynthia will ever be. She is indeed the "wine in the wilderness" that Bill has conceived; when she undergoes a metamorphosis before his eyes, he suddenly becomes aware that she is the source of inspiration that he and the others so desperately need to find themselves, and their blackness. Alice Childress has created a powerful, new black heroine who emerges from the depths of the black community, offering a sharp contrast to the typically strong "Mama" figure that dominates such plays as Raisin in the Sun. (p. 737)
James V. Hatch, in his Black Theater, U.S.A: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1974 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.), The Free Press, 1974.
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The young adult novel seems to be here to stay, and with books like Alice Childress's A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich … one can see why.
Young and Black Benjie Johnson is a junkie. Through a series of brillliant vignettes, we see Benjie through his own eyes and through the eyes of those around him as he nods his way through his thirteenth year.
Benjie wants someone to believe in him, but since heroes are only sandwiches, the question for Benjie is who can be his hero?…
In short, there is no one so Benjie tries to become his own hero.
Finally, [it is] Butler Craig, the common man—not the sports hero or movie star or street corner preacher or Black intellectual who are usually paraded out for Negro History Week in local schools—who reaches out and pulls Benjie over the edge. Butler is willing to believe in Benjie and be his father a hundred times. With that kind of pulling maybe Benjie, and all of us, can make it. (p. 4)
Ray Anthony Shepard, in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (reprinted by permission of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1841 Broadway, New York, N. Y. 10023), Vol. 6, No. 1, 1975.
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There is little movement in this one-act drama [When the Rattlesnake Sounds], but a wealth of poignant dialogue….
The title refers to [Harriet Tubman's] consoling Celia about her fear by saying, "Child, you lookin at a woman who's been plenty afraid. When the rattlesnake sounds a warnin … it's time to be scared." Despite the lack of action, the play is moving because of its subject and impressive because of the deftness with which Childress develops characters and background in so brief and static a setting. (p. 140)
Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), May, 1976.
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Generally, plays written especially for young people are reviewed as useful rather than as literary works. [When the Rattlesnake Sounds], however, is a poignant celebration of courage, a beautifully crafted work drawn from the life of Harriet Tubman. Rather than attempting the usual chronological panoramic pageant, replete with trite dialogue and a cast of thousands, the author has wisely chosen to confine her drama to one act, focusing on the summer during which Harriet worked as a hotel laundress in Cape May, New Jersey, in order to raise money for the abolitionist cause. Skillful use of introductory notes, stage directions, and the scene-within-a-scene device gives insight not only into the life of the heroine who led hundreds of her people to freedom but also into the universality of human emotions…. [The] book offers the young reader a rare opportunity for an aesthetic experience while becoming aware of the techniques used by the dramatist to develop situation and characters. (p. 301)
Mary M. Burns, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1976 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1976.
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Alice Childress' experience as playwright and actress is revealed in the brilliant characterization and dialogue in Hero, essentially the story of a 13-year-old black boy, Benjie Johnson, and his near-fatal brush with permanent heroin addiction. It is told honestly in the vital, but strong, street idiom of Harlem by several people close to Benjie, and by Benjie himself. While each monologue is part of the story, it also presents a different point of view and helps to develop a gallery of memorable characters. (p. 54)
Hero is not just a family of blacks and their problems: it deals with themes and experiences that are universal, such as rejection, love, the importance of family ties, poverty, and the problems of growing old. It also depicts the frustration and despair of lives warped by discrimination and want; at the same time showing that people must believe in themselves. Lastly, it is a horrifying picture of the effects of dope that make a fine boy become an enemy in his own home. (pp. 56-7)
John T. Gillespie, in his More Juniorplots: A Guide for Teachers and Librarians (copyright © 1977 by John Gillespie; reprinted by permission of the R. R. Bowker Company), Bowker, 1977.
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Each chapter [in A Hero Ain't Nothin but a Sandwich] is essentially a monologue delivered by each of the different participants in the story. This allows for utmost flexibility in portraying the conflicting interest of the several characters. It is difficult, though not impossible, to show a situation in all its complexity and yet convince a reader that it is a child's perception. Alice Childress avoids this predicament with a most felicitous result. No doubt the fact that she is a playwright has a great deal to do with her ability to let each character speak for him or herself.
The monologue technique not only has the advantage of describing the action from several vantage points, but it also enables the author to clearly show the discrepancy between what one character thinks he or she is doing and what is perceived by the others, without violating the integrity of any of them. This discrepancy between intention and result is most obvious in the case of Nigeria Greene, a black teacher in Benjie's school. He is, to hear him speak, a gung-ho black nationalist. He tries instilling in his pupils a sense of black pride. That, he feels, comes first, over and above any academic skill he might be able to impart to them. His room is decorated with portraits of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcom X. He constantly runs at the mouth about those blacks who cow-tow to whitey's ways. But he is unable to escape the fact that being a teacher puts him in an economic bracket that pulls him toward the style of life more consistent with the white middle class than with most of his fellow blacks in Harlem. Nigeria Greene seems confused by this phenomenon, and the only thing he can do to protect himself from this inner conflict is to spout more rhetoric.
The portrait of whites is more realistic in this book, more compassionate, and at the same time, because it is believable, more scathing. Bernard Cohen, Benjie's other teacher, is the typical middle class liberal. He wants to do a good job, but he is confused as to what that means. He doesn't want to rock the boat. When he notices Benjie's nodding off, he assumes the boy stays up late watching television. He doesn't want to have to deal with turning a kid in. He only takes action after Nigeria forces the issue. Bernard Cohn is no less confused than Nigeria. Cohn fears that blacks will drive him out of his job, and that keeps a muffled racism alive in him. The principal, the only other white in the book, is counting the days to his retirement. He has three years to go. He wants as few headaches as possible in that remaining time. He is not a stupid man, nor an evil one. He is only an ordinary man trying to do a job too big for him.
The book conveys very strongly the message that we are all human, even when we are acting in ways that we are somewhat ashamed of. The structure of the book grows out of the personalities of the characters, and the author makes us aware of how much the economic and social circumstances dictate a character's actions. We see how people are forced to deviate from their moral standards by the exigencies of their economic self-interest. This is achieved without neglecting to observe the psychological complexity of each human being. Every character is presented as unique. There are no evil characters in the book, though there are evil consequences: a perfect example of hating the sin, but not the sinner.
A Hero has a strong but simple dramatic structure. The story builds to a climax which is resolved in an optimistic denouement. Benjie, as a potential junkie, is the ultimate repository of all the evil that racism and capitalism can inflict upon human beings. The main drama is played out between him and his step-father, Butler Craig. Butler is the strongest person in the book, the only one who is able to come to a clear resolution of his inner conflict, and the only one who is able to reach Benjie. It is interesting to note that Butler is a working class black, in contrast with [Benjie's teacher] Nigeria Greene, who despite his rhetoric is unable to see and accept Butler for what he is. Butler, on the other hand, has Nigeria pegged from the beginning: Butler says: "… seems like I'm knowing him, but he can't know me; however I don't hold that against him…. The cat is strainin' so hard to get to me, till I just have to encourage him." Butler comes across as a heroic character, worthy of admiration …, yet the reader is able to identify with his struggle in trying to deal with Benjie. Benjie too is sensitively drawn. The author, without condoning or relieving him of the responsibility which is rightfully his, shows him becoming a junkie, but does not lose sight of the fact that he is a child who is hurting, in trouble, and worthy of our sympathy.
A Hero Ain't Nothin but a Sandwich works, both on an aesthetic and political level, because it is true to its characters…. Alice Childress, in successfully portraying the complexity of character, has been able to show the effect of economic class and historical antecedent on the people she writes about. (pp. 13-15)
Miguel Ortiz, in The Lion and the Unicorn (copyright © 1978 The Lion and the Unicorn), Fall, 1978.
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Trouble in Mind is a play about black actors rehearsing a pretentious, liberal, anti-lynching play written by whites, produced by whites, and directed by whites—it is a comedy and its humor is black. Writing in 1955 (three years before Genet's The Blacks), Alice Childress used the concentric circles of the play-within-the-play to examine the multiple roles blacks enact in order to survive. Twenty-three years later we can look at the play and see its double cutting edge: It predicts not only the course of social history but the course of black playwrighting. The plot is about an emerging rebellion begun as the heroine, Wiletta, refuses to enact a namby-Mammy, either in the play or for her director. The best parts of the play, its multi-leveled language and seething, funny role-enactments, prefigure the tough black style of '60s plays—naturalistic dramas that hit hard, inset with sermon-like arias for solo performers.
Hundreds of years of stereotyping are condensed in a few lines….
The most powerful scene occurs when Wiletta begins to "mind" about the stereotypes she has succumbed to, and Sheldon, a sly, canny, skilled role-player, tells her: "Yeah, we all mind, but you gotta swallow what you mind. 'Mind' don't buy beans." While Wiletta is the awakening protagonist, Sheldon's self-awareness gives him heroic stature, even as it forces him into yet another role, another survival tactic. He describes in a moving soliloquy how he really saw a lynching when he was a boy—which completely devastates the liberal pretentions of the "anti-lynching" play being rehearsed….
The drama is not without its weaknesses, which lie in the genre of play-rehearsal-within-a-play. For me, at least, that conceit has only worked on the page. In print and theory, it appears to offer the perfect structure for examining roleenactment, reality vs. fiction. But the playing of it I have always found cumbersome and unwieldy….
Sally R. Sommer, "Black Figures, White Shadows," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1979), January 15, 1979, p. 91.
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