Alice Childress 1920–1994
American dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, prose writer, editor, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Childress's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 12, 15, and 86.
Childress is considered a pivotal yet critically neglected figure in contemporary black American literature. Because she wrote about such topics as miscegenation and teenage drug abuse, some of Childress's 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. She explained in a 1984 essay entitled "A Candle in a Gale Wind": "My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary…. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."
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. Childress noted in a 1987 interview: "[My grandmother] used to sit at the window and say, 'There goes a man. What do you think he's thinking?' I'd say, 'I don't know. He's going home to his family.'… When we'd get to end of our game, my grandmother would say to me, 'Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep.'" Childress 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 was also in the original cast of Anna Lucasta on Broadway, yet she found acting unfulfilling. She commented: "Racial prejudice was such that I was considered 'too light' to play my real self and they would not cast light-skinned blacks in white roles. I realized I had to have some other way of creating." She began to write dramas, later attributing this decision in part to her grandmother. "I never planned to become a writer, I never finished high school," she wrote in her 1984 essay. "Time, events, and Grandmother Eliza's brilliance taught me to rearrange circumstances into plays, stories, novels, scenarios and teleplays."
In 1949 Childress's first play, Florence, was produced. The setting is a railway station waiting room divided into a "white" and a "colored" section. Mama sits on the colored side; she is going north to retrieve her daughter, Florence, who is trying unsuccessfully to act in New York City. Mrs. Carter is a white woman in the other section who tries to show Mama that she is not racist. Mama finds this claim to be false when she asks Mrs. Carter to use her influence to help Florence, only to have Mrs. Carter volunteer to ask one of her friends, a stage director, to hire Florence as a domestic. Trouble in Mind (1955) is a play about a group of actors rehearsing Chaos in Belleville, a fictional drama with an anti-lynching message. One of the black performers, Wiletta Mayer, refuses to obey the director, who wants Wiletta's character to put her own son into the hands of a crowd that is sure to lynch him. Wiletta contends that the director is forcing her character to act illogically, thus reinforcing a negative image of blacks. Wiletta's challenge to the director causes most of the troupe to question their own roles in Chaos in Belleville. In one version of the drama, Wiletta leads a cast walkout and the director demands a script revision in the finale, in another, Wiletta loses her part. Although Trouble in Mind was optioned for Broadway, Childress would not consent to the changes that producers wanted to make in the script, and it was never produced there. 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 the play, Julia, a thirty-five-year-old black seamstress, celebrates the ten-year anniversary of her common-law marriage to Herman, a forty-year-old white baker. He gives her a wedding band to wear on a chain around her neck until they can be legally married in another state. They are never married, for Herman contracts influenza. In Wedding Band, Childress revealed racism in all characters, not just against blacks but also against Germans, Chinese, and others. Wine in the Wilderness (1969) is about intraracial hostilities and prejudices. In it Tomorrow-Marie, called Tommy, affirms that she is not a "messed-up chick" as artist Bill would like to paint her, but the "wine in the wilderness," his image of the majestic "Mother Africa." Although Childress devoted most of her career to drama, she 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 pusher. Rainbow Jordan is another unflinching look at adolescence, from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl trying to create stability in her turbulent life. Childress's last published work was another children's novel, Those Other People (1989), concerning a young boy's coming to terms with his homosexuality and its impact on his family.
Childress was instrumental in the genesis of black 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. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory asserted in Phylon that Childress's plays "beg for scholarship" and described Childress as "a playwright whose dramaturgical advances have paved the way for women in the theatre." 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 black woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage, and with Trouble in Mind 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 A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, apparently on the grounds that the theme of the work was inappropriate for young readers. Childress encountered similar resistance to her plays as well; for instance, the state of Alabama refused to air Wine in the Wilderness when it was produced for television. Childress commented on the reception of her works in her 1984 essay: "I do not consider my work controversial, as it is not at all contrary to humanism."