SOURCE: "An Unfashionable Tragedy of American Racism: Alice Childress's Wedding Band," MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 57-67.
[In the following essay, Curb explores Childress's portrayal of women in her dramas, particularly Wedding Band.]
Alice Childress, a serious contemporary playwright whose work has received little scholarly recognition, has been working in American theater for four decades. Born a decade before Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress produced her first play, Florence, ten years before Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Childress was, in fact, the first black woman to have a play produced on the professional American stage, and she is still writing successful drama in the 1980s. Not only has she had eight serious plays produced, but she has also published two children's plays, two novels, a nonfiction collection of interviews with black women who work as domestics, and an anthology of scenes from plays by black Americans as exercises for black actors. Like Hansberry, Childress has affirmed a deep commitment to social and political causes that promote human rights for black people and women. Unlike Hansberry, however, Childress features black women as protagonists in her fiction and drama.
As an early troupe member of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, Alice Childress performed leading roles for many years before she wrote Florence in 1949. The one-act play, set in a Jim Crow railroad station in the deep South, features an encounter between a black woman and a white woman across a little fence separating them. The white woman attempts to demonstrate her cordiality and lack of prejudice toward Negroes by recounting the plot of her brother's best-selling novel about a "tragic mulatto" girl (a favorite black stereotype for white writers of the thirties and forties) but she unmasks her racist condescension. Angered, the black woman changes her plans to go to New York to retrieve her daughter Florence, who is struggling with little success to become a professional actress. She sells back her train ticket and wires the money to Florence with the message: "Keep trying."
Following successful performances of two other short plays featuring humble characters, Childress initiated Harlem's first all-union Off-Broadway contracts recognizing the Actor's Equity Association and Harlem Stage Hand Local Union. Based on her own backstage struggles as a professional actor, director, and playwright, Childress presented Trouble in Mind, her first full-length play, in 1955, at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. The play ran for 91 performances and won the Village Voice Obie Award for the best original Off-Broadway play of the 1955–56 season.
Like Florence, Trouble in Mind uses an interracial cast but features the struggles of a lone middle-aged black woman in the face of subtle racism from white liberals and the woman's final heroic affirmation of black pride. As the play opens, veteran Wiletta Mayer arrives for the first rehearsal of Chaos in Belleville , her first leading role in a serious Broadway play. Although the play purports to be an accurate treatment of racial tension in the deep South, in fact, it reinforces the same demeaning black stereotypes Wiletta has been trying to escape throughout her career in the theater. After the white director forces a method acting technique on her, Wiletta drops her mask of "Tommish" hypocrisy, which she has always used when working with white directors, and admits that she finds the character impossible; the mother she plays would not send her son out to face a lynch mob. To emphasize the faulty characterization, she asks the director if he would send his son out to be killed. He snaps back...
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at her: "Don't compare yourself to me." Having unmasked the liberal director's hidden racism, Wiletta leads a cast walk-out even though it is clear that her heroism may result in professional suicide.
Early in the sixties Childress wrote her second full-length serious drama, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, about the tragic results of anti-miscegenation laws and what Childress calls "anti-woman" laws in the South after Reconstruction, and still in force in the first decades of the twentieth century. Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1920, the playwright witnessed the suffering of women legally isolated and restricted by the inhumane laws. In essence, the laws which Childress found especially noxious freed the fathers (black and white) of the children of black women from any responsibility for their offspring, and disinherited black women and their children from property rights. Not only was sexual mixing of races strictly prohibited by law, but simply the birth of a mulatto child was proof of the mother's guilt and justified her conviction. Black and white women both suffered under such laws, and each suffered alone, since a woman's testimony about the paternity of her child was not considered valid.
Wedding Band dramatizes the anguish and repercussions surrounding an interracial love affair in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1918. Julia Augustine, a thirty-five-year-old black seamstress with an eighth grade education, has violated both state anti-miscegenation laws and the common mores of the working class by continuing a monogamous love relationship with a white man for ten years. Childress considers the play to be a vigorous political statement protesting the denial of black women's rights during a period of American history rarely featured in current literature about racial struggles. Childress has remarked:
Wedding Band dealt with a black woman and a white man, but it was about black women's rights. I took Herman as an understanding, decent human being. But he could not give her [Julia Augustine] protection in a society where the law is against them. He couldn't marry her. I didn't give him a last name because if Julia couldn't have it, I felt no need to give it. No one has questioned this. The woman is the one most denigrated in such situations. I wrote the play because the only thing I saw about such things was the wealthy white man and his black mistress. But most of the interracial couples then and now didn't come from the wealthy but from working class people. So I took a seamstress and a baker, and this made it an unpopular topic for a lot of people who prefer the portrayal of upper strata whites. 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 have included in Wedding Band.
As the play opens one Saturday morning in summer 1918, Julia Augustine greets her first full day in a working-class ghetto populated by a variety of ethnic groups. Her immediate neighbors are all black women surviving more or less alone. Julia's landlady, Fanny, self-appointed representative of the black race, seems delighted with her new tenant, the only one who has paid in advance. She pries mercilessly into Julia's meager material goods. Eagerly Fanny relays gossip about the other renters: that Mattie worked in a "sporting house," and that Lula adopted a son after she "killed" her natural one. Mattie appears to be a boisterous, high-spirited woman so destitute that she scolds her eight-year-old daughter, loud enough to wake the neighborhood, just after the opening curtain, for losing a quarter.
Lula wins Julia's sympathy by confiding rather than prying initially. Because Lula had suffered such abuse from her husband that she sought consolation from a friend, she tells Julia, she neglected to watch her son, who wandered out and got killed on the railroad track. Her adopted son, Nelson, now full grown, is home on leave from the army. Fanny considers it "unnatural" for Lula to live alone with such a handsome muscular boy, not her blood kin, but fails to recognize or acknowledge her own attraction for him. Nelson rebuffs Fanny's unsubtle advances, but he flirts with Julia and begs her for a date.
Pursued by Nelson and probed by Fanny, Mattie, and Lula, Julia breaks down at the end of the scene and reveals that she cannot marry the man she has "been keepin' company with" because he is white. As a prelude to Julia's shocking revelation, Mattie flatly states, "Man that won't marry you thinks nothin' of you. Just usin' you." Mattie's rigid judgment is ironic in the light of her subsequent revelation that she is not legally married to October, the man with whom she has shared most of her adult life. Mattie tells Julia that her first husband left her after years of habitual battering and verbal abuse. Even though she and October were married in a religious ceremony on Edisto Island eleven years ago, the state of South Carolina only recognizes her first marriage. After Julia's confession, Mattie concludes that Julia is carrying on the affair for money: "You grit your teeth and take all he's got; if you don't, somebody else will…. Rob him blind. Take it all. Let him froth at the mouth. Let him die in the poorhouse—bitter, bitter to the bone."
Relentlessly, but compassionately, Childress characterizes Julia's neighbors as petty and narrow-minded in their racist assumptions and defensive obsessions about their need for social status. If an all-pervasive racism has conditioned the women to be suspicious of white cordiality, it has also toughened them with the stamina necessary for survival. By characterizing Mattie as ruthlessly greedy and conniving, Childress succeeds in illuminating a significant truth of American social history: desperately impoverished and overpowered black women have so long been used as commodities by white men that the only relationship Lula and Mattie can imagine between a black woman and a white man is one of exploitation. They simply advise Julia to exploit the man as much as he is exploiting her. Childress dramatizes the assumption early in the scene by having the poor white bell man, who sells linens to black women, proposition Julia and offer to pay her for sexual favors with stockings. She drives him out, raging: "Beneath contempt, that's what you are…. I wish you was dead, you just oughta be dead, stepped on and dead." Her fury ironically foreshadows her driving Herman and his family from her house at the end of the third scene.
When Julia tries to explain to her neighbors that she and Herman love each other, even though he is not rich or prominent, the other women judge her crazy or a fool. What sticks in Julia's mind at the end of the scene is a phrase she read aloud from October's letter to illiterate Mattie: "Two things a man can give the woman he loves … his name and his protection." Sadly Julia realizes that Herman can provide neither as long as they stay in the South.
Herman, a poor forty-year-old baker, makes his first entrance at the beginning of the second scene, set that evening. When Julia's neighbors eye his shabby appearance with scorn, Julia scolds him for not wearing his good suit. The scene richly exhibits both the tenderness and beauty as well as the ordinariness of Herman and Julia's love. Herman brings Julia an elaborately decorated wedding cake to celebrate their tenth anniversary and a gold wedding band, which she has long desired as a symbol of their commitment, to wear on a chain around her neck until they can be legally married. Eagerly they make plans to sail on the Clyde Line to New York, where anti-miscegenation laws will not thwart them. Herman voices chagrin that they must wait until he sells his bakery and pays back a loan to his mother. Their delays seem also to be influenced by their reluctance to leave the familiar city and by apprehension about the challenge which life in the North presents. Their dialogue provides exposition about Herman's family, work, financial situation, and the homey intimacy of their relationship; Herman does not even know his own size in socks or where to buy them because Julia has been taking care of his clothes for years. (Childress frequently selects unerringly accurate details which succeed in illuminating the intimate nature of a relationship better than a speech peppered with flowery protestations of devotion.)
The scene also reveals that Julia and Herman tread gently on racial issues. Julia has a tendency to make generalizations about "white folks" and Herman thinks Julia is one of "the good kind of colored folks"—implying that he thinks most are not good. A racist slur which Herman's mother once uttered to hurt her son, he had incautiously mentioned to Julia, who has never forgotten it. Herman's mother, a woman with social aspirations, always out of reach, once remarked to her daughter: "Annabelle, you've got a brother who makes pies and loves a nigger." Recalling the remark in the context of their current stalemate situation, Julia complains to Herman: "Sometimes I feel like fightin' … and there's nobody to fight but you…."
Just as Childress characterizes Julia's neighbors as narrowly cautious, she exhibits the pair of star-crossed lovers as flawed. They are not heroic crusaders for sexual liberation, civil rights for minorities, or racial equality. They show neither a desire for martyrdom nor for masochism. However, although they are not battling for social justice, their situation has opened their eyes to the narrowness of their lives and the pettiness of those who restrict them. Herman says, "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. Make ignorance—you know?" As in her other plays, Childress dramatizes the daily frustrations and minor crises that tempt the impoverished to despair and self-hatred. She demonstrates that maintaining personal dignity and hope for the future in the midst of destitution and social rejection can be heroic. In fact, all of the characters who appear in Wedding Band merit admiration simply for surviving. Considering the hostility of Herman's family and Julia's neighbors, it is remarkable that Julia and Herman never doubt each other's love.
At the end of the first act, Herman is stricken with influenza. Childress skillfully interweaves two historical catastrophes here. The influenza epidemic, which swept the country in 1918 and left eleven million dead, provides the moral dilemma which creates the plot. The anti-miscegenation laws force Julia to face impossible choices. She could call a doctor, not only risking their arrest but also endangering the property and reputation of the landlady and the livelihood of everyone who lives in these rental houses. She could hire somebody to transport Herman to a doctor, but he might die on the way. In any case, she could be arrested for transporting a white man under suspicious circumstances. She could patiently wait for Herman's recovery. But the statistics are against her; most influenza victims are dying, and she knows it. If Herman dies in her house, Julia faces the same legal charges from the coroner that a doctor might present. She decides to send for Herman's mother and sister, who can take Herman to a doctor, even though she knows that she faces their hatred and scorn. She also faces prosecution for violating the law which demands that influenza victims be kept under quarantine. For fear of the laws, even Herman's mother chooses to wait until dark to transport him. Thus his life is jeopardized by unjust laws.
By the opening of the second act, Julia's situation has reached a crisis which tightens the tension leading to her climax of rage and anguish at the end of the scene. Fanny refuses to let Julia call a doctor: "They'll say I run a bad house." Fanny knows well the difficulty with which she has won her social and economic position:
Julia, it's hard to live under these mean white folks … but I've done it. I'm the first and only colored they let buy land 'round here…. When I pass by they can say, "There she go, Fanny Johnson, representin' her race in-a approved manner" 'cause they don't have to worry 'bout my next move. I can't afford to mess that up on account-a you or any-a rest-a these hard-luck, better-off-dead, triflin' niggers.
Childress portrays Fanny as a black woman with white-identified values, but she is even more harsh in her characterization of Herman's mother and sister, poor white women who lamely glean what little dignity they can from bolstering their belief in white superiority and condemning Herman for lowering himself to love a black woman. Both white women secretly envy Julia who has known love and passion in a way they have not and probably will not. The sister says to Herman, "Most excitement I've ever had was takin' piano lessons." Later Herman's mother also mentions the emptiness of a life confined to duty and service to other people's needs and pleasures: "I put up with a man breathin' stale whiskey in my face every night … pullin' and pawin' at me … always tired, inside and out." Childress does not invite her audience to mock white sexuality but to pity the pathetic anguish of a tired old woman.
In her compassion for all her genteel but poor characters, Childress describes the indignities suffered by even the least desirable characters. Although she portrays Herman's mother and sister, the only two white women who appear in any of her plays of the sixties, as racists, she analyzes their motivations within the context of their own suffering. Childress has called Herman's mother thus:
A victim of terrible circumstances. No one was able to sit down with her and take her hands in theirs and explain anything. No one was able to say, "We thank you for what you've done. We understand what you've been through." But rather a series of detestations goes on. I treat her with compassion as a woman. I feel that my liberation is not to become as unjust as those who deny my rights. My liberation is not to change places with those who have practiced racism against me.
Herman's mother clings desperately to meager symbols of respectability. Because Annabelle once played a concert in a church, she calls her daughter a "concert pianist." From her first entrance, Herman's mother insults Julia. She makes the same assumptions Lula and Mattie did: Julia is Herman's whore out to exploit him. As Julia's fury mounts, Herman's mother demands to have all of Herman's things that are at Julia's house so that she can burn them. She prompts the delirious Herman to recite a racist speech by John C. Calhoun, which she had whipped him to memorize when he was five, for the Knights of the Gold Carnation (a white supremacist group similar to the Ku Klux Klan). Crazed with fever, Herman grasps the porch post and begins to recite the speech. Julia explodes.
The scene erupts into name calling—the climax of the action:
HERMAN'S MOTHER. Nigger whore … he used you for a garbage pail …
JULIA. White trash! Sharecropper! Let him die … let 'em all die … Kill him with your murderin' mouth—sharecropper bitch!
Julia orders Herman and his family out and continues to scream wildly even after they have gone.
Julia's temporary insanity rages through most of the last scene. Wearing the wedding dress she had been keeping carefully packed away in her hope chest, Julia scatters the rest of the chest's precious contents around the room in a drunken furor. Then Mattie appears and the sudden recognition that she is not the lone victim of legal injustice sobers her somewhat. Mattie tearfully laments that she cannot get any family benefits from the Merchant Marines since she has no state marriage license. The anti-woman state law forbidding divorce punishes Mattie just as the anti-miscegenation laws restrict Julia's freedom and happiness.
Herman arrives, clutching two tickets for the "black deck" on the steamboat to New York. When Herman staggers into the house, Julia gives the tickets and her wedding band to Mattie. She locks out Herman's mother and sister when they come. As the final curtain falls, Julia holds Herman in her arms, imagining that they are riding the steamer to New York. Julia's firm stand—taking Herman in and locking his mother and sister out—dramatically demonstrates her assertion of her rights, even though such a gesture lacks any public effect or crusading zeal. Furthermore, Julia's moment of self-awareness and recognition of her fate is tinged with hysteria.
The two plays which follow Wedding Band in Childress's career feature similar strong women. Wine in the Wilderness portrays black characters separated by class, education, and political/cultural conditioning. Childress wrote the play for WGBH television in Boston as the first drama in the series, On Being Black, in 1969. In the play Tommy-Marie, a factory worker in her thirties wearing mismatched clothes and a cheap wig, and fleeing from the ravages of a race riot, agrees to model for a black artist. What she does not realize at the outset is that Bill and his two friends—snobbish, college-educated, and self-consciously Afro-American—actually hold Tommy in contempt as their image of a "messed-up chick." When she recognizes their scorn, her rage fuels her self-assertion. She uncovers the hypocrisy of their affectations by pointing out their self-hatred: "You don't like flesh and blood niggers…. You comin' on 'bout how we ain' never together. You hate us, that's what! You hate black me." The clusters of images which Childress carefully arranges contrast Bill's artificial and exotic ideal with the real live Tommy, that familiar woman on the streets of Harlem, as has been pointed out by Janet Brown.
In Mojo: A Black Love Story, first presented in 1970, Irene pays a visit to her former husband, Teddy, before entering the hospital for serious cancer surgery. She tells him that she always loved him even though she finds it difficult to express her feelings, and that they have a daughter. Irene shares with Teddy her newly discovered black pride and her need for blackness as a psychic shield against the whiteness of surgery. However Irene's self-assertion and sense of affirmation have occurred before the play opens and merely manifests itself through her courageous revelations to Teddy.
In the seventies Childress devoted her talent and energy to writing fiction and drama for children and adolescents. A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich won the Jane Addams Honor Award in 1974 as a young adult novel and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award from the University of Wisconsin in 1975. In 1977 the film version won the Virgin Islands Film Festival Award. In 1979 Childress published A Short Walk, a novel for adults featuring the life story of a spunky and courageous black woman from the beginning of the century to her death in the seventies. The character has both the earthy grit and assertive energy of Childress's dramatic heroines.
Through essentially solitary struggles, Childress's strong women forge through barriers not only of race and sex, but also class, education, and age which threaten to keep them poor and powerless to a recognition of personal worth. Jeanne-Marie Miller comments: "Childress's women characters not only transcend their predicaments but often function as catalysts for change in those whose lives they touch."
Although all of Childress's published work deserves to be read, Wedding Band is her finest and most serious piece of literature and deserves comparison with the most celebrated American tragedies. Like Childress's other plays, it features an ordinary black woman past her prime. What we have here is that Julia's soul-searching in the midst of her moral dilemmas takes place on stage; her confusion is fully dramatized. The problems which face Julia are complicated by a convergence of historical and political dilemmas with which a woman of her education and conditioning is ill-prepared to cope. That she and the other flawed women in Wedding Band survive is tenuous but believable.
Childress's mode of characterization is unflinching realism. Earthy dialogue and crude figurative language characterize the "nitty-gritty" characters who populate her plays as bursting with vitality and a fully realized sensuality. No saints or villains clutter Childress's dramatis personae. In Wedding Band, racism and the desire for respectability obsess both black and white characters. Every ethnic minority suffers insults. Herman is angered when someone with an excess of patriotism writes, "Krauts … Germans live here," on the side of his house. Suffering from the racist jeers of others does not, however, prevent Herman's mother from calling Julia, "Dirty black nigger," or Julia from calling her, "Kraut, knuckle-eater, redneck." In an earlier scene, the black and white children together, Teeta and Princess, jump rope to the racist rhyme: "Ching, ching, Chinaman eat a dead rat…. Knock him in the head with a baseball bat." Later when they make fun of the "Chinamerican" man down the street, Mattie tells them, "If he ketches you, he'll cook you with onions and gravy." Fanny accuses the sign painter of being a "black Jew" when he refuses to return her money after he misspells a word in her sign.
Name-calling and racist insults bolster the fragile dignity of the member of any ethnic minority desperate to be thought respectable or at least higher on the ladder of social respectability than someone else. Clinging to symbols of respectability is the only way to survive the rejection of the larger society. In a similar way, Fanny brags about her silver tea service, her English china, and her Belgian linen; Julia keeps her hope chest. In an absurd attempt to conceal Julia's indiscretion from the children, Mattie tells them that Herman is Julia's husband—"a light colored man."
The antagonist of Wedding Band seems to be the whole system of government-sanctioned oppression and the conservative status quo fearful of change. However, Childress's uneducated characters lack the ability to understand the nature of the enemy or to articulate their own victimization. Herman and Julia are not presented as the American version of Romeo and Juliet, although their plight invites comparison. They lack the requisite youth and beauty, social prominence and wealth, romantic perfection. They are weak, confused, superstitious, lonely, and impatient; no empires crumble when catastrophe strikes them. Herman's death and Julia's madness create nothing to nurture the healing of racial hatred. However, despite their insignificance, they are brave and honest enough to carry on a love affair threatened by criminal penalties because they know instinctively that love is stronger than unjust laws.
Wedding Band dramatizes more than a tragic love affair. It presents the social, economic, moral, religious, legal, political, historical, psychological context in which a black woman like Julia Augustine makes independent decisions that affect her life and the lives of everyone she touches.
Despite its literary merits, Wedding Band has been largely ignored by producers as well as scholars. Early in 1965 Loften Mitchell wrote:
Wedding Band had a rehearsed reading in 1963. Immediately after that it was optioned for a Broadway showing. To date it has changed hands at least five times. Yet, 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.
The University of Michigan gave Wedding Band a full production in 1965. It took seven years more for the play to reach a larger recognition. In November 1972, Joseph Papp produced it at the New York Public Theatre. In 1973 the American Broadcasting Company presented a televised version of the play on prime time. Ruby Dee, who played the leading role in both the Public. Theatre and television productions, comments:
There is a tragedy here that cannot be underestimated. Alice Childress is a splendid playwright, a veteran—indeed, a pioneer. She has won awards, acclaim, and everything but consistent productions. It is difficult to think of a play by a white writer earning the reviews that Wedding Band earned in 1965 and then having to wait until 1973 to reach the New York stage.
It proves one thing: We may salute and savor the glory of the black theatrical pioneer, but in a land where materialism is all-important, the real salutes take longer.
Exactly why it took so long for Wedding Band to reach large American audiences can only be guessed. Childress herself guesses that the content was unpopular. However, no producer told her directly: "We just don't do serious plays featuring middle-aged black women," or "We'll only consider an interracial love story if it's scandalous, violent, and terribly romantic." Nobody refused to produce it because the historical period play was out of vogue. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that a play such as Wedding Band was doomed to be passed over in the sensational sixties and early seventies because it offers an unbloody plot with unglamorous characters, in an unfashionable setting, in an unflinchingly realistic style. No wonder one opening night New York theater critic dismissed it as "an appealing but inconsequential little period play about miscegenation … ready for a Jerome Kern score." Another belittled it as "a romantic play that does not entirely escape the charge of sentimentality … a sweet old love story about hard, dusty times in a hard, dusty place." One can only conclude that the critic, Clive Barnes, had more of an eye to his own prejudices and expectations than to the play on stage. No careful reader would give the play the following judgment: "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."
Far from being "old-fashioned," the writing in Wedding Band offers the authenticity of the regional dialect in the diction of the period. Necessarily, the dialogue sounds stilted to a contemporary ear. Although Childress's realism owes much to Ibsen and Chekov, it cannot for that reason be dismissed as out-of-date. After all, realism has proved to be a successful mode for most of what are considered the great American tragedies. However, it is no doubt true that Wedding Band failed to win popular acclaim for the very reason that it deserves to be re-read and re-evaluated by serious scholars: it is an authentic portrait of American racism in a rarely dramatized historical period with credible characters.
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."
SOURCE: "A Novel to Enjoy and Remember," Freedomways, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1980, pp. 101-02.
[In the following review, Wilson praises Childress's rich characterization and dialogue in A Short Walk.]
Alice Childress has written a remarkable book [A Short Walk] that takes its title from the answer given by protagonist Cora James' father to the question "What is life?"—which she asks him at age five while watching a minstrel show. Life, he responds, is "a short walk from the cradle to the grave … and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way." On the same occasion, when a storm threatens to erupt out of a black performer's impromptu musical discourse on oppression, Cora's father counsels, "Let all run that wants to run, Cora. We stay put where we are, so's not to get trampled."
Deeply influenced by her relationship with her father (which relationship, incidentally, displays our child-rearing system in one of its most satisfactory variations), Cora develops into a kind, loving adult who stays put a good deal and is adept at dealing with those problems that present themselves. From her father she has taken a strong will, a deep love for her people and their culture, a critical eye and a strong sense of responsibility for herself and those close to her.
In Cora James' odyssey from the Low Country of South Carolina to the Big Apple, we see reflected those legions of black folk who made the journey and poured their energies into creating Harlem, U.S.A. Thoughtful, womanly, strong, responsible, tough, resilient and stubborn, Cora is at once uniquely herself and every black woman "that's ever had to stand squarefooted and make her own way." Author Childress sees to it that we come to know and understand the whole Cora and that we take special note of her solitariness, that pronounced aloneness which often goes unrecognized in the lives of so many black women. Cora's blood mother, we learn, had suffered such aloneness to a tragic degree at a very young age.
We also realize, after reading what it was like for Cora to come to a big city and survive, that her struggle is the same forty or fifty years later and will probably be the same forty years from now. So you check back through the pages of A Short Walk to note again just what it was that kept her going.
In her relationships with men, Cora seeks some justice, comfort and understanding, and she struggles for them. The man, Cecil, whom she deeply loves, she loves through the long haul though she is pained because "he cannot see himself at all as I see him." She realizes that the reverse is also true. The male characters are dramatic and memorable, each for different reasons; and though not all are strong, entirely admirable people, none is caricatured.
Perhaps it is the author's playwrighting skills which account for the novel's superb dialogue—a veritable celebration of the black community's use of language. And not only the dialogue but the descriptive passages as well are rich, both in imagery and adroitly used proverbs.
Through the author's masterful juxtapositions of tragedy and humor, sorrow and joy, cruelty and kindness (sometimes in the same person), readers are led to deal with her juxtaposition of African/African-American culture and cultural repression in stunning ways. There are political elements which invite family discussion—you will recognize them. You will be energized by this book, and you will be surprised from time to time—nobody's predictable, certainly not Cora. You will remember A Short Walk and think about your own.
Florence (drama) 1949Just a Little Simple [adaptor; from the short story collection Simple Speaks His Mind by Langston Hughes] (drama) 1950Gold through the Trees (drama) 1952Trouble in Mind (drama) 1955Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life (prose) 1956Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (drama) 1966The Freedom Drum (drama) 1969; also performed as Young Martin Luther King, 1969String [adaptor; from the short story "A Piece of String" by Guy de Maupassant] (drama) 1969Wine in the Wilderness: A Comedy Drama (drama) 1969Wine in the Wilderness (screenplay) 1969Mojo: A Black Love Story (drama) 1970A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (novel) 1973Wedding Band (screenplay) 1973When the Rattlesnake Sounds (drama) [first publication] 1975Let's Hear It for the Queen (drama) [first publication] 1976 ∗Sea Island Song (drama) 1977A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (screenplay) 1978A Short Walk (novel) 1979String (screenplay) 1979Rainbow Jordan (novel) 1981Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (drama) 1987Those Other People (novel) 1989
∗This work was also produced as Gullah in 1984.
SOURCE: "A Hero for the Movies," in Children's Novels and the Movies, edited by Douglas Street, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1983, pp. 236-43.
[In the following essay, Hill compares the strengths and weaknesses of Childress's book A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich with those of the film version of the novel.]
The important differences between novels and films become particularly apparent when the same author treats a story in both media, as Alice Childress did when she wrote the screenplay for A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, based on a novel she had published five years earlier.
Like other novels directed at an adolescent audience, the story has an adolescent, Benjie Johnson, as its central character. Benjie, who lives in Harlem with his mother Rose, with his grandmother, and sometimes with his "stepfather" Butler, has a heroin habit. The novel follows him through his, initially, casual flirtations with drugs, his insistence that he can always kick the habit—that he, in fact, does not really have a habit—his grudging recognition of his addiction, to an indeterminate but hopeful ending in which he has at least a good chance of getting off drugs. The story is told in a series of first-person narratives, several by Benjie himself, and others by ten other characters, including members of his family, his teachers and friends. Newspaper clippings regarding events mentioned by the narrators follow the appropriate chapters and lend accent or emphasis.
The mood of the novel is stark, and the reader shares Benjie's hopelessness. He does not know where his real father is and agonizes over this fact. Because his mother is busy with her job and her new love, he feels excluded from her life. Butler makes efforts to be a father to him, but Benjie is unable to relate to him and feels that he has stolen Rose's love from him.
In school, Benjie encounters such diverse role models as Nigeria Greene, a fiery black nationalist who makes racial pride the main study in his classes; Bernard Cohen, a Jewish teacher who worries about the decline of traditional learning in general and about the influence of Greene's teaching methods in particular; and the principal, who is just trying to hold on until his retirement three years hence.
Besides narratives by these characters, we also find various other points of view represented. Benjie's grandmother believes that her particular brand of religion-superstition is the answer to his problem; a neighbor woman has designs on Butler and thinks Rose is foolish to let Benjie or anyone else come between her and such a fine man; a pusher, Walter, denies that he is doing anything particularly bad and maintains that if he didn't supply his customers someone else would. Several boys Benjie's age are portrayed in the book, including his only real friend, Jimmy-Lee, who has broken the dope habit, and with whom Benjie must then break if he is to rationalize his own heroin dependence. There are also some "dope friends," Carwell and Kenny, and another pusher, Tiger.
The first-person narration form is particularly effective in bringing out the uncertainty and ambiguity the various characters feel about their own identities; their stories provide an effective parallel to Benjie's own confusion and uncertainty.
The book is extremely powerful, and Benjie is a character we care about. Though he indulges in considerable adolescent self-pity, he is not without saving graces. His fear of allowing himself to look up to anybody lest he later be disappointed is expressed in the title statement: "A hero ain't nothin' but a sandwich."
We also care about Rose, who longs to express her love for her son but finds herself only able to criticize, and about Butler, who sincerely loves Rose and is fond of Benjie but who though he works hard to support both them and Benjie's grandmother is keenly aware that he has no official status in their lives.
The novel's ending offers no easy solutions to Benjie's problems, but it leaves us hopeful. As Butler waits for Benjie to show up at the Drug Rehabilitation Center, he says; "Come on, Benjie, I believe in you…. It's nation time…. I'm waiting for you." We do not know for sure that Benjie will actually come, but the understanding that he and Butler have begun to achieve suggests that he has at last begun to have a hero in his life, and it strongly implies that if he does not come that day he will come soon.
Both the problem portrayed and the characters are clearly realistic, and what might easily have been a preachy or sentimental book becomes in Childress's hands a sensitive, honest view of life, the way things are today. Because of her skillful use of first-person narrations, the characters—and not just the problem (drugs)—are important. This is not always true of "problem novels" for young readers.
The film based on the book is a Robert Radnitz production, directed by Ralph Nelson and released by New World Pictures. The character of Benjie is played by Larry B. Scott, with Cicely Tyson as the mother, Paul Winfield as Butler, Glynn Turman as Nigeria, and David Groh as Cohen.
The first change one notices is that the setting has been changed from Harlem to Los Angeles, presumably because it was cheaper to film location shots near the Hollywood studio. Obviously, a drug problem such as Benjie's might as easily be found in Los Angeles as in Harlem since no locale or level of affluence is immune from drugs today, but, the effect of moving Benjie from what is clearly an ugly, threatening environment, as portrayed in the novel, to the movie's world of beautifully landscaped parks, palm trees, and beachfront, is to mute the dreariness that characterizes Benjie's environment in the book. In addition, Benjie's home as depicted in the movie, while not elegant, is clearly no tenement. It is comfortable and livable, and there is even one scene of Benjie and Butler talking in the back yard, with the sky showing through the leaves of a vine arbor overhead.
Even more significant than the shift in setting, however, is the change from the multiple first-person narration form of the book to the dramatic objective viewpoint of the camera eye. The power of the novel in illuminating the characters' inner frustrations and confusions is largely lost through this change. Nowhere is this more evident than in the characters of Nigeria and Cohen, who seem much weaker in the film than in the novel. The very sharp, deep conflict between them and their values—as well as the genuine concern for their students that forms a mutual bond between them—is reduced in the film to a superficial playground confrontation that does little except establish the fact that there is a school drug problem something already apparent to the viewer. In the case of Benjie and Butler, however, the characters are both so well developed that we do not miss having their first-person narrations.
The roles of some characters are given either greater or lesser emphasis in the film than in the novel. Rose seems more of a real person in the film than in the novel, where she was a rather shadowy figure. The principal does not appear in the film, and we do not particularly miss him. The grandmother and her religion are given somewhat less prominence in the movie, the neighbor woman is completely eliminated; both changes work well in the film. The four characters of Benjie's dope world acquaintance are effectively combined into two in the movie, each being given enough of a role to make him seem real.
Butler's role is significantly increased in the film—so much so that he seems almost equal in importance to Benjie. This may give the movie a real problem with respect to its intended audience. The book is clearly aimed at young adolescents who—to use the filmmakers' term—would be "pre-sold audience," the carryover audience from a popular book. The movie, with its "PG" rating, is apparently trying to appeal to the whole family, thus the greater emphasis on Butler and Rose and their problems. However, a young adolescent would likely not be able to relate to Butler's problem of establishing his role as the father, for instance. The movie is almost too much Butler's story, and there is a mild schizophrenia in point of view. The book, in spite of the multiple first-person narration from, is very clearly Benjie's story.
One of the outstanding points about the movie is the excellent quality of the acting. Larry B. Scott as Benjie successfully conveys the adolescent vulnerability hidden beneath a superficial teen-age swagger. Cicely Tyson captures Rose's full range of emotions, from her girlish excitement about a night on the town with Butler to her despair over Benjie's drug problem. The scene in which Rose desperately tries to wash Benjie's drug problem away in the indigo bath is one of the most touching in the movie. Winfield's portrayal of Butler has quiet strength and great sensitivity. In fact, from the very beginning of the film Butler seems so clearly concerned about Benjie that it is difficult for the viewer to understand why the boy holds him at arm's length for so long. In the book, this side of Butler is far less apparent until late in the story.
The plot of the novel moves more or less straight forward in normal chronology, though there are some overlaps in time because of the changes in narrators, who frequently comment on the events already mentioned and commented on. In the book, this effectively brings out the various viewpoints and is not really distracting or confusing to the reader. Nevertheless, the movie's straightforward presentation may be somewhat easier for young people to follow.
There are several changes in the sequence of events from novel to film. For instance, the encounter between Benjie and Jimmy-Lee in which the latter declares that he is not going to use dope any more because "I got somethin' better for a dollar to do," takes place early in the book. This is a signal to the reader that despite his protestations to the contrary Benjie is becoming so addicted to heroin that he prefers to break off this important relationship, since Jimmy will no longer join him in his habit. In the movie, this scene appears almost at the very end and therefore only indicates that Benjie is continuing in what we already know is a serious drug habit. Its usefulness in helping us follow Benjie's descent into drugs is lost in the movie.
In fact, the movie never makes it sufficiently clear how or why Benjie becomes addicted to drugs. To show that Benjie is becoming hooked, the filmmaker resorts to the device of repetitive scenes showing him using the drugs and earning money for this habit by delivering drugs. In the movie, the whole time lapse from Benjie's first use of marijuana to when we know that he is, in fact, unable to quit heroin, seems altogether too brief and unrealistically sudden. And the question of why Benjie takes drugs remains quite puzzling. Though bothered by the fact that he does not know where his real father is, he appears to have no other problem. Because of the shift in setting and some other changes as well, Benjie's environment seems neither hostile nor threatening. At home, he is surrounded by people who care about him, even though they have their own needs and preoccupations too. And in school he even seems to be something of a star. There is a scene in Nigeria's class in which Benjie is able to amaze the whole class, teacher included, with his knowledge about a particular black leader. And in Bernard Cohen's class, he is asked to read aloud a composition for which he is publicly praised and given an "A."
The scene is apparently used to show two things: first, assigned to write about a member of his family, Benjie has selected his mother, thus revealing her importance to him as his only remaining parent. Second, when as part of his praise Cohen says, "Keep this up and some day you'll be somebody," Benjie replies, "I'm somebody now." We are confronted with a common adolescent problem: the feeling that adults don't give them credit for being someone now, and focus too much on what they may grow up to be. The scene thus fulfills some valid functions in the movie, but combined with the scene in Nigeria's class it also suggests that Benjie's school provides a generally supportive atmosphere. In the book, the praise Benjie receives for the paper about his mother is said to be something that happened years before the time of the book, and it is not typical of his school career. There is no equivalent in the book of the scene in Nigeria's class.
In addition, the Benjie of the novel tells us several times that one of his problems is that he feels betrayed by Nigeria Greene, who, along with Cohen, has turned him in for drug use. Though the movie does show the two teachers taking him out of class when he is obviously stoned, it does not emphasize for us the importance that this betrayal has for Benjie because it has not made sufficiently clear how he has idolized Nigeria.
A time shift that is even more troublesome than the one involving Benjie's encounter with Jimmy-Lee concerns the change in the relationship between Benjie and Butler. In the book, after Butler has saved his life, Benjie writes "Butler is my father" one hundred times. This indicates that Benjie finally realizes that Butler does indeed care for him, and suggests to the reader that the boy is accepting Butler's role in his life. Also, because Benjie slips this paper into Butler's coat pocket, where Butler is sure to find and read it, Butler is given more justification for taking off work to meet Benjie at the Drug Rehab Center. In the movie, Benjie writes "Butler is my father" much earlier, before Butler has saved his life—and so far as we know Butler never sees the piece of writing. Thus, the movie Benjie's motivation for trying to get off drugs—like his motivation for getting on them—is not fully clear, and the movie Butler does not have the same motivation to wait for Benjie at the Rehab Center.
Several scenes and elements in the movie do not appear in the book, and some of these are extremely effective. Although the encounter group scene in the hospital, in which other patients bombard Benjie with their views about drugs, seems to add little, Nigeria's oration at Carwell's funeral is touching and effective. The still photographs of Benjie as he goes through the various stages of withdrawal in the hospital are a brilliant directorial choice and heighten our horror at Benjie's predicament.
Moving pictures, however, are clearly better at vividly portraying some scenes than are either stills or word pictures. For instance, the rooftop scene in which Benjie's life is in danger gets our adrenalin flowing far better in the visual medium than in Childress's novel. Along with Benjie, we hang precariously by one hand as Butler strains to pull us up. The ending of the movie is revealing of the overall differences between the two forms. In the movie, when Butler waits for Benjie at the Rehab Center, the boy actually appears; in the book Butler only waits and hopes. The movie ending is weaker in consequence, but the change is necessitated by the differences in chronology and motivation mentioned earlier. The reader was led to believe that Benjie will appear, because this would be the logical result of his realization of Butler's love for him and of his acceptance of the older man as his hero. But since moviegoers have not had this clear motivation for Benjie to change, they need to be shown that the boy does indeed intend to change.
The experience of viewing a movie based on a book need not—cannot—be the same as that of reading the book. Whereas the book is more subtle in its portrayal of people and uncompromising in its presentation of the environment in which they live, the movie sharpens the individual portraits but softens the environment. However, we care deeply about the people in both book and movie, and that is one of the important tests of any story presentation, whether verbal or visual.
Brown, Janet. "Wine in the Wilderness." In her Feminist Drama: Definition & Critical Analysis, pp. 56-70. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979.
Feminist analysis of Childress's Wine in the Wilderness in which the critic analyzes associational clusters and pattern of symbolic action.
Clurman, Harold. Review of Wedding Band, by Alice Childress. The Nation 215, No. 5 (13 November 1972): 475-76.
Generally positive review of Public/Newman Theatre's staging of Wedding Band.
Karlin, Barbara. "To Grow On." The Los Angeles Times (25 July 1982): 9.
Brief, positive review of A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich.
Kaufmann, Stanley. Review of Wedding Band, by Alice Childress. The New Republic 167 (25 November 1972): 22, 36.
Generally negative review of the Newman Theatre's staging of Wedding Band. Kaufman attacks both the script and the direction of Childress and producer Joseph Papp.
Oliver, Edith. Review of Moms, by Alice Childress. The New Yorker LXIII, No. 1 (23 February 1987): 105.
Positive review of the Hudson Guild's staging of Moms.
Rogers, Norma. "To Destroy Life." Freedomways 14, No. 1 (First Quarter, 1974): 72-5.
Review that provides a plot summary of A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich.
Simon, John. "No Thanks for the Memory." New York 20, No. 8 (23 February 1987): 127-28.
Generally laudatory review of Childress's Moms.
Tait, Marianne Pride. Review of Those Other People, by Alice Childress. The Booktalker 1, No. 1 (September 1989): 14-15.
Short review providing a plot summary of Those Other People.
SOURCE: "Images of Blacks in Plays by Black Women," Phylon, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 230-37.
[In the following essay, Brown-Guillory discusses the stages of Tommy's development in Wine in the Wilderness.]
Alice Childress, born in 1920 in Charleston, South Carolina and reared in New York City, is an actress, playwright, novelist, editor, and lecturer. Claiming her grandmother, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Paul Laurence Dunbar as principal influences, Childress developed into an exceptional playwright. However, few are aware of the immense contributions that she has made to black playwriting in America in her 36 years of writing for the American stage. Consequently, the aim of this [essay] is twofold: (a) to demonstrate that Alice Childress, a black woman who has struggled against powerful odds to survive in the theatre, has made monumental contributions to black women's playwriting in America, and (b) to illustrate that Childress' heroine in Wine in the Wilderness survives whole, just as Childress has, regardless of seemingly impenetrable barriers.
Alice Childress has written twelve plays, some of which include Florence; Gold Through the Trees ([the] first play by a black woman to be produced professionally on the American stage); Trouble in Mind (first Obie Award to a woman for the best original Off-Broadway play of [the] 1955–56 season; the play also was produced by the BBC in London); Wedding Band (broadcast nationally on ABC); Wine in the Wilderness (presented on National Educational Television); Mojo (best known because of frequent productions); and When the Rattlesnake Sounds ([a] children's play about Harriet Tubman).
Alice Childress' plays, which Genevieve Fabre in Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphors places in the category of "ethnic theatre of black experience" as opposed to "militant theatre of protest," have neither been produced nor critically written about to the extent that they deserve. Suffice it to say that the American stage, with its highly political infrastructures, has traditionally disregarded women playwrights generally, not to mention black women playwrights. However, Childress has continued to write for the American stage even when it has apparently looked upon her with blind eyes and turned to her with deaf ears. She is a driven playwright and her compulsion to write is evident in the following lines:
Am working on two new plays. Why? Why? Why? I can't stop and the market being what it is—I should—How I wish I could stop. But there is an inner clock that keeps ticking away and running the works in one direction.
Alice Childress is, indeed, a pioneer—a crucial link—in the development of black women playwriting. Forerunner of Lorraine Hansberry, Sonia Sanchez, Martie Charles, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, and others, Alice Childress has written plays which incorporate the liturgy of the black church, traditional music, African mythology, folklore, and fantasy. She has experimented by writing socio-political, romantic, biographical, historical, and feminist plays. It is no small matter that Alice Childress' striving to find new and dynamic ways of expressing old themes in an historically conservative theatre has opened the door for other black women playwrights to make dramaturgical advances. Her "firsts" invariably paved the way for a line of black women playwrights to insist upon craft and integrity over commercialism. Doris Abramson writes, "Alice Childress has been, from the beginning, a crusader and a writer who refuses compromise … She refuses productions of her plays if the producer wants to change them in a way that distorts her intentions." Trouble in Mind is a case in point; it was optioned for Broadway, but Childress refused when a producer attempted to "sharpen and delineate" so as not to offend sensibilities.
Because Alice Childress has made significant and innovative contributions to black women playwriting in America, in particular, and to theater, in general, her works merit serious critical treatment. One can not read very far into a Childress play without being impressed by her "good ear for dialogue and fine sense of characterization." Jeanne-Marie Miller observes, "Childress noted early that Black women had been absent as an important subject in popular American drama, except as an empty and decharacterized faithful servant." As a result of this awareness, Alice Childress has created as James V. Hatch states, "… The modern black woman … no longer is she depicted as the overly devout, hard-working, suffering matriarch, the prostitute, or the faithful (and/or dumb) servant; instead she emerges as a real human being of dimension, having needs and desires." In short, characterization is Chidress' forte.
One of the few major playwrights of the 1950s without a college education, Alice Childress writes largely about poor women for whom the act of living is sheer heroism. In fact, Childress' own background resembles that of her heroines in Florence, Mojo, Trouble in Mind, Wedding Band, and particularly Wine in the Wilderness. In her recent essay "Knowing the Human Condition," Childress makes the following observation:
My great grandmother was a slave. I am not proud or ashamed of that; it is only a fact…. I was raised in Harlem by very poor people. My grandmother, who went to fifth grade in the Jim Crow school system of South Carolina, inspired me to observe what was around me and write about it without false pride or shame….
Indeed, her poor, dejected heroines are depicted as morally strong, sometimes vulnerable, but resilient. She portrays these women honestly as they fight daily battles not just to survive but to survive whole. Childress comments, "I attempt to write about characters without condescension, without making them into an image which some may deem useful, inspirational, profitable, or suitable. Listen to the poetry in common prose, a sensitive experience."
Childress' commitment to creating dimensional heroines who represent the large numbers of poor blacks in America is apparent when she makes the following assessment:
But it is serious self-deception to think that culturally ignoring those who are poor, lost and/or rebellious will somehow better our "image." If we will not see them, we must also fail to see ourselves. The wrong is not in writing about them, but in failing to present them in depth, in denying their humanity, in making them literary statistics in social studies, and in using them in street stories as humor or relief. Black writers cannot afford to abuse or neglect the so-called ordinary characters who represent a part of ourselves, the self twice denied, first by racism and then by class indifference.
Wine in the Wilderness is the best illustration of Childress' superb handling of characterization. Captivating drama that exhibits suspense, plausible conflicts, swift repartee, meaningful and well developed dialogue, Wine in the Wilderness is perhaps Childress' finest play. The heroine of this play. Tomorrow Marie, who calls herself Tommy, epitomizes the typical heroine who peoples Childress' plays. Tommy is no defiled, broken, delicate woman who crawls off into some corner to suffer from a nervous breakdown and spend the rest of her life condemning men for her emotional and physical bruises. Instead, she steadily moves in the direction of wholeness. James V. Hatch says of Tommy, "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."
In Wine in the Wilderness, Tommy is pitted against Bill Jameson, Cynthia, and Sonny-man, three middle-class blacks who despise their heritage and disassociate themselves from and castigate "grass roots" blacks. Hatch makes the following observation about the play and its heroine:
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.
Regardless of the fact that her bourgeois acquaintances almost destroy her, Tommy moves to a state of completeness, i.e., develops a positive sense of self.
Tommy's odyssey or search for wholeness takes her through six stages: koinonia, logus, metanoia, kerygma, didache, and eucharistia. These are terms from Koine Greek, which was the marketplace or common man's Greek spoken during Hellenistic through Roman periods. Much of the New Testament is based upon Koine Greek. Interestingly, Alice Childress lists the Bible as one of her sources of inspiration and influences. It is important to note that these terms lend themselves to broad interpretations and will be defined in the context of this [essay].
These stages are comparable to the stages discussed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, wherein the archetypal journey of the hero is broken into three stages: the departure, the initiation, and the return. Additionally, Pearson and Pope in The Female Hero view the journey of the heroine as basically an exiting, an initiation, and a return to one's community as a whole person. However, the Koine Greek stages of growth far better describe the stages through which Childress' heroine journeys.
Tommy, by the time the play opens, has already experienced the first stage of growth, and it is through flashbacks that information about her koinonia is given. By way of definition, koinonia means fellowship, united in something deeply, family, to be inextricably bound by common grounds, a sharing of life's moments, a foundation, values imparted to a person via her community, a fellowship which helps to define and positively affirm a person's sense of self. Tommy's background is one of poverty, but it is apparent that she, as a child, had loved ones of whom she was proud and who made her feel worthy, loved, and rooted, as is seen in her conversation with Bill Jameson:
TOMMY. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised here in Harlem…. My Mama raised me, mostly by herself, God rest the dead…. Her father was a "Mason"…. I had an uncle who was an "Elk"…. Early in life I pledged myself to A.M.E. Zion Church….
Tommy's comments demonstrate her strong ties to her family and community.
In short, the koinonia is a person's beginnings, and there can be no "exit" or "departure" that Campbell or Pearson and Pope speak of unless there is a koinonia. Rev. Victor Cohea contends that koinonia, as it applies to blacks in America, is a stage of growth which does not generally build in racial bias as a buffer; in other words, Cohea believes that parents of black children generally do not teach them about racism and, in fact, do their best to shield them from prejudice. Thus, according to Cohea, black children become very vulnerable when they go out into the real world which is inundated by racism.
Credence is given to Fr. Cohea's comments about blacks' vulnerability to racism because of what takes place in Tommy's second stage of growth, the logus. In the narrow sense, logus means "the word of Jesus" but in its broader interpretation logus can be defined as an awareness moment, a revelation which sets things in motion, a "loss of innocence." Logus parallels what Lindsay Patterson in Black Theater refers to as the "Nigger Moment." Patterson makes the following assertion:
But there comes a time in life when one loses his innocence and is pushed boldly into the real world … I mean by lost innocence that specific moment when a black discovers he is a "nigger" and his mentality shifts gears and begins that long, uphill climb to bring psychological order out of chaos. It's not a moment, however, easily detected. All of black literature is more or less unconsciously preoccupied with precisely pinpointing and defining it. It is an elusive, complex moment, with complex reactions and can occur at four or forty, and its pursuit, I believe, will continue to occupy serious black writers for decades to come.
Thus, the logus or "Nigger Moment" serves to bring on confusion.
Tommy's logus or "Nigger Moment" occurs during her adolescence. Tommy comes to this as do the children in Margaret Walker's poem "For my People" who chant, "… We discovered we were black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood." She recalls in a touching conversation with Bill Jameson, a middle-class black with whom she is enamored, the moment she realized that blacks were oppressed in America. Tommy tells Bill of the painful moment in her life when her uncle and fifteen hundred blacks went to jail for wearing the "Elk" emblem on their coat lapel, an emblem which at that time only whites were allowed to wear. It is the moment which leads to her curiosity about black/white relationships in her community and her subsequent confusion about her place in America. Thus, the quest begins.
The metanoia, the third stage, is the turning away or turning around, a quest to understand and be saved from confusion, a struggle to cope with oppression, a coming to terms, an up-hill climb accompanied by a series of trials and errors. From Tommy's conversations with her "cultured" associates, it is evident that she is a "woman alone," one who has struggled to make sense of the confusion in her life. She has not despaired over racial or social inequities; instead she has resiliently forged ahead as is indicated in her comment to Cynthia, "Tommy's not lookin' for a meal ticket. I been doin' for myself all my life … A black man see a hard way to go." Tommy's metanoia is further defined as she interacts with her bourgeois companions who subtly ridicule at every turn her speech, mannerisms, clothes, and values.
Tommy's quest or metanoia is further heightened by these haughty blacks who are as mean to her as some of the whites who have denigrated her. Tommy bends but doesn't break as she tries hard to emulate and be accepted by these supposedly sophisticated blacks. Determined to get their stamp of approval, Tommy lays bare her soul to the insensitive, insipid Cynthia:
What's wrong with me, Cynthia? Tell me, I won't get mad with you, I swear. If there's something wrong that I can change, I'm ready to do it…. I come from poor people … Cynthia, I remember my mother tyin' up her stockin's with strips-a rag 'cause she didn't have no garters. When I get home from school she'd say … 'Nothin' much here to eat.' Nothin' much might be grits, or bread and coffee…. We didn't have nothin' to rule over, not a pot nor a window…. I'm so lonesome … I'm so lonesome … I want somebody to love. Somebody to say, 'That's alright,' when the world treats me mean.
Tommy's pain goes unassuaged, and she is no closer to a positive sense of self than before she met these "refined" blacks.
Perhaps the single most important impetus for Tommy's turning away, or metanoia, is her discovery from Oldtimer, an elderly "grass roots" black man, who inadvertently tells Tommy that she is to be represented on the triptych as the "dregs of society." Tommy is almost leveled by the blow, especially since the night before she had made love to the man, Bill Jameson, who was going to depict her as society's cast-off. Tommy's metanoia comes full circle in the following lines:
OLDTIMER. And this is "Wine in the Wilderness" … The Queen of the Universe … the finest chick in the world.
TOMMY. That's not me.
OLDTIMER. No, you gonna be this here last one. The worst gal in town. A messed-up chick that—that—
TOMMY. The messed-up chick, that's why they brought me here, ain't it? That's why he wanted to paint me! Say it!
At this point in Tommy's growth, she realizes that the people she wanted to be like are emotional and social cripples, and she completely reevaluates her earlier decision to try to emulate these "wine-sampling" blacks.
The kerygma generally follows the metanoia. This stage of growth centers around the heroine's compulsion to speak, when she lashes out and, in effect, says "I can't and won't stand the way I'm being treated, and I will make it stop." Kerygma suggests explosion, sometimes verbal but oftentimes physical. Pearson and Pope in The Female Hero contend, "The hero who is an outsider because she is female, black, or poor is almost always a revolutionary." Though Tommy is triply disadvantaged, her explosion is a calculatedly verbal one.
Tommy clearly moves into the [fourth] stage, kerygma, when she snaps, stops accommodating, and explodes when it is confirmed that she is merely being studied like a guinea pig. Tommy's wrath is evident in the following lines:
Trouble is I was Tommin' to you, to all of you … "Oh, maybe they gon' like me."… I was your fool, thinkin' writers and painters know more'n me, that maybe a little bit of you would rub off on me.
When Bill tells Tommy not to refer to herself as "nigger," she becomes even more enraged:
If a black somebody is in a history book, or printed on 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 'bout "our" history. But when you run into us livin' and breathin' ones, with the life blood still pumpin' through us,… then you comin' on 'bout how we ain' never together. You hate us, that's what! You hate the black me!
The didache, the fifth stage, is a summation, the bottom line of a formal message that the heroine passes on to the naive blacks who have yet to learn what she has learned. A stronger, more confident Tommy is emerging as she tries to enlighten those "pseudo-intellectuals" about what she has just been able to piece together because of their treatment of her. Her epiphany manifests itself when she comments:
You treat me like a nigger, that's what. I'd rather be called one than treated that way … When they [whites] say "nigger" just-dry-long-so, they mean educated you and uneducated me. They hate you and call you "nigger," I called you "nigger," but I love you.
She proceeds to tell them that if blacks are so untogether it is because the ones with education have forgotten what it is to be black and have joined forces with those whites who castigate blacks. Her message, or didache, serves as a catalyst for them and catapults her into her final stage of growth.
The eucharistia, stage six, is a combining of inner wholeness with outward community. This wholeness or completion leads the heroine back to her community which reaffirms her newfound positive sense of self. Eucharistia is a celebration of the commonness that the community shares; it is a celebration of self, of life, and of community wholeness. Fr. Cohea points out, "There can be no eucharistia if there is no koinonia."
Tommy wades into eucharistia when she firmly resolves that she will not let anyone make her feel small, half-human again. In this stage of growth, she realizes that her "Nigger Moment" was a hoax, that she is not a nigger, i.e., inferior in any way. All of her past wounds are healed once she asserts herself. For some, a positive experience brings them into wholeness, into humanity, but Tommy's eye-opener stems from negative treatment by blacks who themselves are not whole. A strong, whole woman emerges as Tommy speaks the following lines to her transfixed and transformed would-be-friends.
I don't have to wait for anybody's by-your-leave to be a "Wine in the Wilderness" woman. I can be it if I wanta … and I am. I am. I am. I'm "Wine in the Wilderness" … alive and kickin', me … Tomorrow-Marie, cussin' and fightin' and lookin' out for my damn self' cause ain' nobody else round to do it, dontcha know … And, Cynthia, if my hair is straight, or if it's natural, or if I wear a wig, or take it off,… that's all right; because wigs … shoes … hats … bags … what you call acess … accessories. Somethin' you add on or take off. The real thing is takin' place on the inside … that's where the action is. That's "Wine in the Wilderness,"… a woman that's a real one and a good one. And ya'll better believe it.
Tommy's wholeness or celebration of self is infectious; the once "phoney niggers" join in and affirm Tommy's metamorphosis. Together they celebrate the cessation of Tommy's quest, a journey which has, presumably, benefited them as much as her. Hatch aptly comments on Tommy's wholeness and its impact on her associates: "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 needed to find themselves, and their blackness." Thus, Tommy does become that wine, with its Biblical resonances, which will revive, nourish, and nurture her black counterparts.
Jacqueline Fleming, author of Blacks in College, recently stated that "People are the sum total of the conditioning they've been given." Her point was that negative conditioning breeds failure. However, she stressed that there are some cases where people survive and succeed without the benefit of positive reinforcement. Childress, through her characterizations, concurs with Dr. Fleming. Tommy, for example, metaphorically gives birth to herself in order to survive whole.
C. W. E. Bigsby in The Second Black Renaissance points out that Childress' work is less caustic than that of Ed Bullins and Charles Gordone, but what Bigsby doesn't acknowledge is that Childress' plays are every bit as relevant and powerful because as Loften Mitchell observes, "Her characterizations are piercing; her observations devastating." Childress' heroines, especially in Wine in the Wilderness, survive whole, not as fragmented, irreparably wounded, delicate, caustic women. Others like Tommy pass through the stages of growth, koinonia, logus, metanoia, kerygma, didache, and eucharistia, making sure not to be destroyed by the psychological and social minefield through which they must journey. Childress' heroines, in general, are at once courageous, discerning, vulnerable, insecure, and optimistic. In short, they are human, real.
Childress' twelve plays beg for scholarship. A playwright whose dramaturgical advances have paved a way for women in the theatre, Childress is that new thought, that breath of fresh air, that possibility. More than just a wine in the wilderness, Alice Childress is the bread and the song.
SOURCE: "Alice Childress: A Pioneering Spirit," Sage, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 66-8.
[In the following excerpt from an interview conducted May 1, 1987, Childress discusses her background and motivation as an author.]
Alice Childress, born in 1920 in Charleston, South Carolina, and reared in New York City, is an actress, playwright, novelist, editor, and lecturer. Childress is the only Black American woman whose plays were written and professionally produced over a period of four decades….
Though Childress admits that she is not a "public" person, she graciously talked to me about childhood memories, her writing process, her struggle to carve a place for herself on the American stage, and several high points of her life. The interview took place at the University of Massachusetts on May 1, 1987….
[Brown-Guillory:] Most artists can recall that "significant other" who served as a source of inspiration and who gently prodded them into telling truths about life. Is there someone who gave you a gentle push? Who influenced you to become a writer?
[Childress:] My grandmother, more than anyone else, inspired me to write. She wasn't just a typical grandmother. She was a well read person who made me interested in storytelling. She 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." She'd say, "Well, how many children does he have?" I'd say, "Three." My grandmother would ask, "Is his wife nice?" I'd say, "No, I don't like her." When we'd get to the end of our game, my grandmother would say to me, "Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep."
You speak with such reverence for your grandmother. Are there other memories of her that have sustained you?
She had seven children and was very poor. There wasn't any time to do anything, except try to keep the children in clothing and someway fed. Always running out of everything. When I came along, all of her children were grown. We were together all of the time. Her name was Eliza. She was named for Eliza who crossed the ice in Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. My grandmother's maiden name was Campbell. Her mother was a slave who was freed very early … like at fourteen or fifteen. She was turned out in the middle of Charleston, South Carolina downtown. They drove off in a horse and buggy and left her standing there. A white woman named Mrs. Campbell stopped and asked her why was she crying. She said, "Folks just left me." Mrs. Campbell said, "Well, I don't have much but would you like to come live with me? I have a cottage with five rooms." My great-grandmother went. She didn't have anywhere else to go. And, Mrs. Campbell's son became my grandmother's father. Then he went off to sea and never came back. He was a merchant seaman. Mrs. Campbell's name was Ann or Anna and my great-grandmother's name was Annie. It was Mrs. Campbell who named her grandchild Eliza. I put so much emphasis on my grandmother, Eliza, because my father and mother were separated when I was very little. I vaguely remember him. My mother was always working and on the go. My grandmother was a very fortunate thing that happened to me.
Are there particular experiences that you and your grandmother shared that shaped your writing?
We used to walk up and down New York City, going to art galleries and private art showings. She used to say to the people in charge, "Now, this is my granddaughter and we don't have any money, but I want her to know about art. If you aren't too busy, could you show us around?" Then she'd quiz me when we'd get home. She'd take me to different neighborhoods to explore. I was storing up things to write about even then. She took me to an Italian neighborhood and said, "Now, what's that smell?" I remember the smell of escargot. My grandmother was a member of Salem Church in Harlem. We went to Wednesday night testimonials. Now that's where I learned to be a writer. I remember how people, mostly women, used to get up and tell their troubles to everybody. Just outright tell it! "My son's in jail," or "My daughter's sick," or "I don't have any money, and my rent is due." Everybody rallied around these people. I couldn't wait for person after person to tell her story. One woman told of a suicide in her family; he had jumped off the roof. Everybody went over to hug her and tell her it would be all right. It was kind of frightening. But, that's where I got my writing inspiration.
Were there others who inspired you?
I learned to read in Baltimore in a Jim Crow class. I had a teacher named Miss Thomas. Now, she was a source of inspiration. She said to us on the first day of class, "You're going to learn to read in my class or stay in here until you're twenty-one." I spent one year in Baltimore, but it was a very telling year. I was in the third grade and my teacher told us that everybody was going to go out reading and reading well. All we did all day was practice and did reading homework.
Although they deserve it, we usually don't credit our early teachers with playing significant roles in our lives. Miss Thomas gave you a special gift. She empowered you to read about many of the things in life that your grandmother wished for you to know.
A high point in my life was when I got my library card. I believe I was in the fifth grade in Harlem at the time. My teacher took us to the library and they explained to us that we could draw out two books a day … free! I went to the library everyday and took two books and read them at night. I read incessantly.
I'm sure you were a star pupil. You obviously had a solid foundation in the basics.
What changed everything in life for me was that I never finished high school. I had two years of high school. My grandmother died. My mother died. And I had to go to work. But I had that foundation with grandmother of studying.
You have a steady list of publications in several genres, including essays, novels, stage plays, teleplays. I've read and thoroughly enjoyed your novels, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, A Short Walk, Rainbow Jordan, as well as all of your plays. Which form is your favorite?
Plays are my favorite form. But, theatre is the hardest business at which to make a living.
How did you become involved with the theatre?
I was in some plays in school. But later I joined the American Negro Theatre. I joined in 1941 and was there for eleven years. After about seven years, I was personnel director for a year while Fred O'Neal went abroad. I learned to direct plays at the American Negro Theatre, and I began writing. We needed things. We needed good writing. I was an actress in the American Negro Theatre. I was in a working situation. I was doing. It's like working in a factory that makes paint; it's different from reading about paint than mixing paint. You learn how to do it by doing it. As an actress, I was able to get on-the-job training. We also had to coach other actors who were coming in. We had to do some of everything in the theatre. The American Negro theatre is one of the best, if not the best. Newspaper accounts said that we studied like the martial arts schools. We had no money, but we worked hard. If you were late two or three times in a row, you were dropped. If you weren't in a production, you still had to be there four times a week to work on make-up, costumes, props, stage managing, sets, etc. I did everything there is to be done in the theatre.
The kinds of experiences that you talk about are so very crucial to anyone who aspires to be a playwright. Your comments have proven that a playwright needs to be attached to a theatre in order to develop craft. Your writing plays, then, was a natural outgrowth of working in the theatre and seeing a need for accurate images of Blacks. Your first play, Florence, treats the issue of stereotyping. I understand that you wrote Florence overnight.
Yes, I did. I had a talent for writing. Sidney Poitier was in the house when I began writing it that night.
How would you describe your writing process?
I learned by trial and error. As I wrote, I learned. I began to sense what didn't quite work. You learn to ask yourself all sorts of questions as you write, like "Why is it too slow or too long or boring?"
In the fall of 1986, my play Snapshots of Broken Dolls was produced at the Lincoln Center in New York City. During an interview with a journalist from the New York Amsterdam News, I credited you as one of my favorite writers. You are a master craftswoman. Did you read plays by other authors?
I felt inspired to write from reading. Anything that you read or anything that you talk to people about shapes your writing. But it wasn't like I picked out a playwright and read and started writing. I began reading other people's plays after I was writing. I became interested in craftsmanship. I found instinctively that I knew a lot about craft. I liked Shakespeare. I also belonged to a group in Harlem that was doing only Shakespeare.
Did you take any professional writing courses?
I never had a writing course. Ever. I probably would have enjoyed one very much. Today, too many writers don't respect craft. They write thirteen pages today and want to send it off to MGM tomorrow. They don't treat writing as an art. Just as music is an art, so is writing. A good musician has to practice a lot. My husband [Nathan Woodard] has a degree in music, and he teaches music. I see the patience he has with studying music. I think it's important for writers to keep developing craft, to keep studying and to keep writing.
You were able to develop your craft during a two-year tenure, between 1966 and 1968, at Radcliffe/Harvard.
The Radcliffe/Harvard appointment was a high point in my life. It was Tillie Olsen who recommended me for this appointment. Everybody who participates in this program has a doctorate. I was honored to be chosen, especially since I had not finished high school. I wrote Wedding Band and other pieces during my appointment. I was awarded a graduate medal from Radcliffe/Harvard for the writing I did. I'm not sure who judged my work, but Lillian Hellman was connected with the program at the time.
The Radcliffe/Harvard medal is symbolic of the possibilities if one works at fine-tuning her craft. Many can only dream of such an affirmation of one's skills in the theatre. Did you always dream about becoming a writer?
I didn't dream about anything. I didn't plan or plot, as people say, to be this, that, and the other. I was too busy happening all the time. I was in the middle of happening. The things that really make me want to write are those things that happen to me, not those things I read when I pick up a book. I might go to a ballet and feel inspired to write.
Record has it that your play, Trouble in Mind, was the first play by a Black woman to be professionally produced, meaning it was performed by equity actors.
Actually, the American Negro Theatre's production of Gold Through the Trees in 1952 in Harlem was done with paid actors before the media picked up on the off-Broadway professional production of Trouble in Mind in 1955.
How do you view the host of "firsts" that have been attached to your name?
I never was ever interested in being the first woman to do anything. I always felt that I should be the 50th or the 100th. Women were kept out of everything. It almost made it sound like other women were not quite right enough or accomplished enough, especially when I hear "the first Black woman." When people are shut out of something for so long, it seems ironic when there's so much going on about "the first."
Thanks to you, though, some doors have been opened for other women playwrights. It is up to critics and scholars to point out the many contributions you've made to American theatre.
The very first review I ever received was from Lorraine Hansberry. We both worked at Paul Robeson's newspaper, Freedom. She did reviews and covered Gold Through the Trees. I still have that review. She just signed it L.H.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing my autobiography. I'm also working on two novels. This past January, my play Moms, based on the life of Moms Mabley, was produced in New York City.
SOURCE: "Black Women Playwrights: Exorcising Myths," Phylon, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, Fall, 1987, pp. 229-39.
[In the following essay, Brown-Guillory discusses the depiction of black characters in the plays of Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange.]
Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange, three outstanding contemporary black women playwrights, are crucial links in the development of black women play-writing in America. These three playwrights, whose perspectives and portraits are decidedly different from those of black males and white playwrights, have created images of blacks which dispel the myths of "the contented slave," "the tragic mulatto," "the comic Negro," "the exotic primitive," and "the spiritual singing, toe-tapping, faithful servant."
Childress, Hansberry, and Shange have created credible images of blacks, such as "the black militant," "the black peacemaker," "the black assimilationist," "the optimistic black capitalist," "the struggling black artist," and "the contemporary black matriarch." However, three images which appear most frequently in the plays of these black women are "the black male in search of his manhood," "the black male as a walking wounded" and "the evolving black woman."
The black male in search of his manhood, a product of the ambivalence fostered mainly by the continued disinheritance of blacks after World War II and the Korean War, is a major new image in contemporary literature. Functioning in this role, the black male struggles to realize who he is and what his function in life is to be. In his essay, "Visions of Love and Manliness in a Blackening World: Dramas of Black Life from 1953–1970," Darwin T. Turner states:
Ironically, as black dramatists examine their characters more critically, often they seem less polemical and more compassionate because, in the black world, they perceive not only individuals searching for manhood and love but even more pathetic figures too impotent to search for manhood or to achieve a relationship of love….
Plays by Childress substantiates Turner's claim because the image of the black male in search of his manhood is shown either as a creature who is in the process of becoming a mature human being or one who is too incapacitated to search for manhood. His insecurity of his own identity and values renders him generally passive. He vacillates between integration and separatism. He has yet to establish a philosophy about how to succeed or cope in American society.
As he strives to overcome personal problems and to achieve responsible maturity, the confused black male may castigate blacks and opt to align himself with whites who he feels will validate his manhood. Though he may reject his ethnicity during the search, he reaches maturity when he realizes that his manhood does not hinge upon his acceptance by anyone but himself.
John Nevins, a black male in search of his manhood, appears in Childress' 1955 Obie award-winning drama, Trouble in Mind, a play which centers around the frustration blacks feel because of the limited and demeaning roles available to them on the American stage. John, in his early twenties, hopes to prove his manhood by becoming a successful actor. A novice among his veteran-actor co-workers, John dreams of making money regardless of what must be sacrificed. When the white director, Al Manners, appears, John immediately becomes a "yes-man," indicating that he is neither assertive nor self-respecting.
Nevin's self-effacement is apparent during the rehearsal of Chaos in Belleville, Childress' play within a play, a device which she learned from Shakespeare, one of her principal influences. When Al Manners asks John if he can object in an artistic sense to the word darkies, John placatingly replies:
No I don't object. I don't like the word but it is used, it's a slice of life. Let's face it, Judy wouldn't use it, Mr. Manners wouldn't …
John eagerly compromises his opinions to keep his role in Chaos in Belleville in order to "make it" in the theatre and, thus, define his manhood.
When his black co-workers display anger at his "Tomish" remarks, John aligns himself with one of the white actresses, Judy, hoping that she will validate that he is a man. Not only does he seek approval or direction from Judy, but he also turns to Al Manners. However, Manners, during an argument over interpretation, unthinkingly makes the mistake of implying that John could not be compared to his son because John is black and his son is white. Angered by this remark and encouraged by his black co-workers to assert himself, John examines his values and decides that racial pride means more to him than success in a play that degrades blacks. Boldly he declares, "They can write what they want but we don't have to do it." John moves in the direction of maturity as his black peers help him to become whole.
Whereas John Nevins eventually asserts himself, Sheldon Forrester, one of John's co-workers, typifies the image of the black who is too impotent to search for manhood. Sheldon chooses to sacrifice dignity for minor roles on the American stage. He has no self-respect, and he chastises those blacks who affirm themselves. Sheldon has been worn down and perceives that it is futile for a black male to try to function as a man in American society. Ironically, Sheldon defines his manhood in terms of success at projecting that he is not a man among white men. He brags that his denial of self has helped him to survive in the world and says that blacks ought to "take low" in order to keep whatever jobs are issued out to them. The audience sees Sheldon's spinelessness when he aims his remarks at his co-worker, Millie:
I hope the wind blows her away. They gonna kick us until we all out in the street … unemployed … get all the air you want then. Sometimes I take low, yes, gotta take low. Man say somethin' to me, I say … "yes, sure, certainly." That ain't tommin', that's common sense. You and me … we don't mind takin' low because we tryin' to accomplish somethin' … Well, yeah, we all mind … but you got to swaller what you mind….
Sheldon has neither the courage nor the determination to become a whole person.
Like Sheldon, Teddy is a black male in search of his manhood in Alice Childress' Mojo: A Black Love Story, a play which deals with the need for black men and women to be supportive of each other both in and out of love relationships. At the beginning of the play, Teddy is searching for his manhood in his relationship with his white girlfriend, Berniece. He wants very much to please her so that she, as he says, will make him feel like a man. Teddy's devotion to his status symbol is apparent when he makes the following comments: "Aw, baby, I aint callin you white folks, you wild, yallerheaded, fine thing, you! They all white folks but you … you somethin else. I'll be there…."
Later when Teddy argues with his black ex-wife, Irene, he displays insecurity and his need for affirmation from a white woman:
TEDDY. Git offa my back, Reeny … that's one thing bout that simple Berniece … she make me feel like a man. She's white but she make you feel like….
IRENE. Feel like … feel like … I been hearing that all my days … sound like my poppa … "I wanta feel like a man." You wanta be a man … forget that feel like … feel like….
TEDDY. If you wasn't on your way to the hospital I'd knock the hell out of you, for underminin me. Berniece knows how to make you feel pleasant.
Towards the end of the play Teddy, with the help of Irene, does begin to insist that he is a man, not a child needing approval. His growing confidence in himself is demonstrated when he lovingly reaches out to comfort Irene who is soon to be hospitalized.
Childress' sensitive treatment of the black male in search of his manhood reflects her vision that black men and women can become whole only when they not only join forces but resources as well. Childress' Teddy represents those black males who refuse to let poverty and had luck keep them from growing into fine black men who accept responsibility for their families.
Unlike the black male in search of his manhood is the black male as a walking wounded. Whereas the former struggles for direction and identity, the latter knows exactly who he is and is painfully aware of the fact that he is oppressed in American society. He not only survives but survives whole. Though physical and/or emotional blows are heaped upon him, he is neither fragmented nor abusive to his women. He is fully aware of his roots and is proud of his heritage.
The black male as a walking wounded insists that he be treated like a human being. A contented slave he is not; instead, he struggles to free himself and others from oppressive forces. Because of a positive sense of self, he can and does reach out to others. He especially has a strong sense of family togetherness, a trait which his African fathers brought with them to America. In short, this character, which is diametrically opposite to the image of the incorrigible black beast that dominated the American stage for so many decades, refuses to be anybody's sacrificial lamb and boldly keeps going in spite of his wounds.
Though Childress, Hansberry, and Shange have created credible images of black men, the females in plays by black women have much more dimension and are more finely tuned than the males. These black women characters are not sexually insatiable like Karintha and Carma in Jean Toomer's Cane or Bessie Mears in Richard Wright's Native Son. Nor do they resemble the countless "black mammies" who were created to represent black womanhood, such as Dilsey in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Berniece in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, Addie in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, or Ella Swan in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. Doris Abramson in Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre 1925–1959 includes the following Hansberry quote which demonstrates her rejection of the then popular images of blacks:
One night, after seeing a play I won't mention, I suddenly became disgusted with the whole body of material about Negroes. Cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or swinging musicals from exotic sources.
Additionally, Cynthia Belgrave in "Readers' Forum: Black Women in Film Symposium," comments on the inaccurate and narrow images of black women on the American stage:
If you're strong and stoical you're a matriarch, and if you're weak and sensual, you're a whore. Of course there are no equitable gradations in between … The Black woman is at the mercy of everybody. When we finish kicking people, let us kick the Black woman again.
Childress, Hansberry, and Shange do not limit themselves to the deity and/or slut syndrome. In her essay, "Images of Black Women in Plays by Black Playwrights," Jeanne-Marie A. Miller contends that the images of black women are not only peripheral in plays by whites, but the portraits of black women in plays written by black men are, generally, radically different from the images of black women in plays by black women:
In the plays written by Black males, Black women's happiness or "completeness" depends upon strong Black men. Thus, Black women playwrights bring to their works their vision, however different, of what Black women are or what they should be.
In short, Miller calls for an inclusion of the caricatures of black women playwrights when the images of black writers are the subject of discussion.
Mary Helen Washington in Black Eyed-Susans: Classic Stories By and about Black Women makes a strong case in the following lines for studying black women writers:
What is most important about the black woman writer is her special and unique vision of the black woman…. One of the main preoccupations of the black woman writer has been the black woman herself—her aspirations, her conflicts, her relationships to her men and her children, her creativity…. That these writers have firsthand knowledge of their subject ought to be enough to command attention.
Childress, Hansberry, and Shange view black women from a special angle. One image which dominates their plays is "the evolving black woman," a phrase which embodies the multiplicity of emotions of ordinary black women for whom the act of living is sheer heroism. This creature emphasizes understanding and taking care of herself. Not always a powerhouse of strength, the evolving black woman is quite fragile. Her resiliency, though, makes her a positive image of black womanhood. Self respecting, self-sufficient, assertive, these women force others around them to recognize their adulthood….
Florence in Alice Childress' Florence, may be classified as an evolving black woman. As the play opens, Florence's mother, Mrs. Whitney, and her sister, Marge, discuss Florence, who has moved to New York because she views the South as too confining for a black woman desirous of improving her lifestyle. Characteristically, Florence strives to survive in a hostile world. Placed in the position of supporting herself and her son because her husband was killed by whites in the South, Florence dreams of becoming an accomplished actress. She chooses to relocate in order to fulfill those dreams.
Though Florence has not met with much success, except for the several times that she has played the part of a maid in plays, she is determined to find a way to make a name for herself in the theater. Florence is a positive image of black womanhood; she refuses to use racism as an excuse for not trying to improve her lifestyle. She represents those black women who refuse to despair in the sight of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Instead of applying for public assistance, she sets out to become self-sufficient in a profession that she considers dignified. It is her determination to succeed after her husband's death which makes her a character truly to be admired.
The evolving black women in Childress' Wine in the Wilderness and Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf are preoccupied with themselves because they have been disappointed by the men who have come into their lives. These are women who have had their share of "deferred dreams" and are no longer willing to play the role of "woman-behind-her-man" to men who appreciate neither their submissiveness nor their docility. These women rebel and claim that no man is ever going to oppress them again. They are not women who give up on men or feel that all men are insensitive beasts; instead, they are women who have become independent because of their fear of being abused physically and/or emotionally in subsequent relationships.
The image of the black woman in these two plays is that of a woman who has to "sing the blues" before she is able to make some sense out of the chaos in her life. Though black women who are abandoned in Childress' and Shange's plays bewail their losses, emphasis is placed on their ability to survive in a world where they are forced to care for themselves. The evolving black women in these plays fight back after they have been bruised, and they work toward improving their lifestyles.
Tommy Marie in Alice Childress' Wine in the Wilderness is an evolving black woman. When a young, black, middle-class artist, Bill Jameson, chooses to include Tommy in his triptych, she gets the impression that he is interested in starting a relationship with her. However, though Bill seduces her, he merely intends to use her to capture the image of, as he describes it, "the dumb chick whose had her behind kicked until it's numb."
When Cynthia, a bourgeois friend of Bill, tries to tell Tommy that she is not good enough for Bill and that she must not look upon him as a possible provider, Tommy Marie flaunts her independence:
Tommy's not lookin' for a meal ticket. I been doin' for myself all my life. It takes two to make it in this high priced world…. I have a dream too. Mine is to find a man who'll treat me just half-way decent … just to meet me half way is all I ask, to smile, to be kind to me. Somebody in my comer. Not to wake up by myself in the mornin' and face this world alone … I'm so lonesome … I want somebody to love. Somebody to say … "That's alright," when the world treats me mean.
Tommy typifies the evolving black woman in that she dreams of finding a man who will love and share with her, but it is apparent in her comments that she has equipped herself to survive alone if she must.
When Tommy discovers, after she has made love with Bill, that she is to represent the "lost womanhood" in his painting, Tommy's assertiveness and resiliency are apparent:
I don't have to wait for anybody's by-your-leave to be a "Wine in the Wilderness woman." I can be it 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' me … Tomorrow-Marie, cussin' and fightin' and lookin' out for my damn self' cause ain' nobody else around to do it, dontcha know…. That's "Wine in the Wilderness,"… a woman that's a real one and good one. And yall just better believe I'm it.
Tommy's message to Bill Jameson is that he is a "phoney nigger" who talks about black brotherhood only because it is in vogue. She tells him that he has treated her like a "nigger," but that she will go right on with the business of living because she has always had to take care of herself.
James V. Hatch contends that Tommy Marie is a positive image of black womanhood because she is honest, and she is not living under the illusion of false reality. Hatch suggests that she is a survivor who refuses to despair:
True, Tommy "hopes" that Bill will seriously fall for her, but if he doesn't, she is prepared to move on. 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 whose warmth, compassion, inner dignity, and pride make her more of a woman than Cynthia will ever be. Alice Childress has created a powerful, new black heroine who emerges from the depths of the black community.
At the end of the play, Tommy is confident that if Bill Jameson does not see her worth and beauty, another male will. What is important to note is that Alice Childress has created an image of a woman whose inner strength will protect her as she searches for a stable relationship in which there is reciprocity….
Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange are contemporary black women playwrights whose visions or perspective[s] are different from black males or white writers. To exclude black women playwrights as a source for examining black life is to omit a large piece of the human puzzle. These three major women writers are important because they, too, like black women writers in other genres, supply America with plausible, and in some cases unique, images of black men and women.
Some have dared to ask, "Do black women playwrights really depict black life?" Unequivocally, they do, but these images must be viewed in conjunction with the images created by black males in order to create an accurate picture of black life. Others have asked, "Do black women playwrights represent the majority of blacks?" These selected playwrights do not create images which represent the majority of blacks; no two or three writers can, or should have to try. However, these three women playwrights present a vital slice of life, and it is up to many more black writers to capture the multitude of images of blacks.
Perhaps, the most important question to be asked is "Will society be different after meeting the characters in the plays of black women?" The answer is yes, significantly so. When blacks turn to theater for better ways to live, Childress, Hansberry, and Shange offer them a multiplicity of options via black characters who come from the heart of the black community. Contemporary black women playwrights uniquely give to the American stage a view from the other half.
SOURCE: "Alice Childress's Rainbow Jordan: The Black Aesthetic Returns Dressed in Adolescent Fiction," Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 70-4.
[In the following review, Govan explores the role of the Black Aesthetic in Childress's novel Rainbow Jordan.]
In 1988, twenty years beyond the period and in an age enamored of political voyeurism as opposed to political participation, it is decidedly unfashionable to speak favorably of the Black Aesthetic. As critical literary theory the Black Aesthetic was, after all, an overtly political doctrine, an artistic manifesto of the militant "revolutionary" 1960s. Nowadays, art from this period which adhered to a Black Aesthetic is shunned for its stridency or militancy; the aesthetic credo itself is now largely ignored or discredited. Yet curiously, I find that in order to discuss Alice Childress's Rainbow Jordan, I must also discuss the Black Aesthetic because for me, the one most decidedly evokes the other.
Briefly then, let me indicate the principal spokespersons and basic tenets of what was once proudly trumpeted as the Black Aesthetic. Its chief architects were Larry Neale, Hoyt Fuller, Julian Mayfield, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Gerald, and Ron Karenga. For Julian Mayfield, in "You Touch My Black Aesthetic …," the new critical credo could be distilled as "our racial memory and the unshakable knowledge of who we are, where we have been, and springing from this, where we are going." For Carolyn Gerald in "The Black Writer and His Role," the Black Aesthetic fell upon the artist as a concrete responsibility. The artist was to be a "guardian of image; the writer [was] the myth-maker of his people." Gerald went on to argue that there was a "sense of power" derived from a "mythic consciousness based on a people's positive view of themselves" which was also inherently part of the then emerging critical code. Poet Mari Evans crystallized many of these sentiments in her "Speak Truth to the People." Evans demanded that artists:
Speak Truth to the people Talk Sense to the people Free them with reason Free them with honesty Free the people with Love and Courage, and Care for their Being Spare them the fantasy Fantasy enslaves
By far, however, the best known, most provocative proponent of the Black Aesthetic was Maulana Ron Karenga, a Black nationalist. Karenga's "Black Art: Mute Matter given Force and Function" presents the most codified requirements for both Black artists and Black art.
Karenga argued bluntly that "black artists and those who wish to be artists must accept the fact that what is needed is an aesthetic, a Black aesthetic, that is a criteria for judging the validity and/or beauty of a work of art." Karenga proposed to judge art from two perspectives, the social and the artistic. For him, "artistic considerations" while necessary for any art, were by themselves insufficient. What finalized any artistic endeavor was its social dimension, the "social criteria for judging art." This was the most crucial criterion for, in his terms, "all art must reflect and support the Black Revolution, and any art that does not discuss and contribute to the revolution is invalid." Strong statements alone, but Karenga further augmented them by borrowing from traditional African art three guiding characteristics which became the cornerstone of the Black Aesthetic. Black art was to meet these essential tenets: it must be "functional," that is "useful"; it must be "collective," that is, it must emerge from and return or speak to the people; it must be "committing" or committed. This meant Black art must "commit us to revolution and change," commit us to a new and different reality.
It is time to call the question—what precisely does Rainbow Jordan, a contemporary adolescent novel considered "outstanding" (Nilsen & Donelson) in its field, have to do with an avowedly political, although now apparently unpalatable approach to art? The answer is a great deal. On Rainbow Jordan—on its narrative mode, its themes, and most particularly its characters—is imprinted the stamp of a conscientiously Black literary/political agenda. While Alice Childress is not wedded to a concretized notion of what Black art "must do," this novel, as do her other novels and plays, has embedded—refashioned and redressed, to be sure—the substantive core of what was the Black Aesthetic. Not a strident text, Rainbow Jordan nevertheless reflects these values: it is functional, it is collective, it is committed.
When a theory has been discarded and rejected largely for its vehemence and the seeming rigidity of its proscriptions, it could be dangerous or perhaps presumptuous to try to link a particular artist and her work to it. And had not Childress consistently reiterated her own ideas about literary politics, ideas which sometimes seem in conflict but which are, on balance, not that distant from the political motives of the Black Aesthetic, I would not even attempt it. For instance, in "A Candle in a Gale Wind," Childress illuminates her literary stance. She acknowledges "bending" her writing "to most truthfully express contents, to move beyond the either/or of 'artistic' and politically imposed limitations." This pronouncement seemingly undercuts my initial premise; yet, if what is accented is her commitment to "truthfully express content," the argument saves itself. Truth, after all, and truth tied to knowledge emerging from the unique perspective of the Black writer who observes and records it, is the greatest demand "imposed" on the Black artist. Within this essay Childress outlined her methods, goals, and intentions. Rejecting the premise that the writer's duty was to compose inspirational tracts about Black high achievers—large heroic figures who surmounted the barriers of racism and economic deprivation—she chose to focus on illustrating the "have nots in a have society"—those who seldom receive attention unless as targets of "derogatory humor and/or condescending clinical and social analysis." "Politically," wrote Childress, "I see my Black experience, my characters, and myself in very special circumstances." In depicting the powerlessness inherent in that "special circumstance," in showing the complexity of frustrated dreams, frayed hopes, yet persistent determination Childress finds her calling. As she put it: "I continue to write about those who come in second, or not at all—the four hundred and ninety-nine and the intricate and magnificent patterns of a loser's life." As if anticipating and deflecting the shopworn charge of "universality," Childress forthrightly defines her philosophical commitment: "My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."
Clearly, Childress's concern is for the people, for showing them as they are. She is not concerned with constructing necessarily better or "positive" images of poor or "ordinary" Black folk. In fact, image-building for its own sake becomes an empty symbolic gesture devoid of substance. There is no inherent value in "self-deception," or in ignoring those "who are poor, lost, and/or rebellious" merely in the service of proper "image" ("The Human Condition"). When we refuse to see the poor, Childress argues, "we also fail to see ourselves. The wrong is not in writing about them but in failing to present them in depth, in denying their humanity, in making them literary statistics…." Further, Childress asserts that her goal is to write "about characters without condescension, without making them into an image which some may deem more useful, inspirational, profitable, or suitable" ("Human Condition"). This last statement is certainly an unqualified rejection of the image-as-symbol school and possibly a reaction to any critical ultimatum specifying that the artist adopt a set didactic approach to the question of Black "images." In Childress's realm, "images" are not essential; rather, characters are the focal point.
And yet ironically, me thinks the artist doth protest too much. As surely as any sensitive reader digests Rainbow Jordan, that reader will be unable to leave the novel without some sense of [the] more "positive" images of particular people/characters resonating in the imagination. And, that reader will be unable to put the novel down without some sense of admiration—inspired by the unassuming almost stoic heroism of characters facing hard choices and hard compromises daily. Childress's characters have all their foibles showing; it is in watching them recognize and reevaluate their weaknesses and their strengths that readers may see conflict as a way of testing or molding "character," as a way of recasting image. Without excluding any sensitive reader, Rainbow Jordan successfully becomes an attractive version of the Black Aesthetic redressed because it is myth-making at work for younger audiences. By focusing on the Jordan family and Rainbow's alliance with her adult mentor, it is also illustrative of "racial memory," racial identity—of "where we have been … and where we are going" (Mayfield). And to reiterate, because Childress chooses to present truth, as she witnesses it, Rainbow Jordan reflects those three essential characteristics defining the Black Aesthetic; that is, it is functional, collective, committed.
Obviously, most adolescent readers of Rainbow Jordan have never heard of the Black Aesthetic. It's likely that neither have their teachers. And that's okay. It isn't necessary to know about the Black Aesthetic in order to enjoy and appreciate the novel at its first level. Teachers like the novel because it is well written, discusses significant issues, and treats realistic conflicts sensitively. Youngsters who enjoy reading like the book because it addresses them. The novel features a fourteen year old heroine with whom teens can easily sympathize or identify. It treats subjects—stressful parent-child relationships, peer pressure, sex education and teen pregnancy, friendships beyond family—teenagers respond to. It has familiar themes in contemporary cloth. Most importantly, Rainbow Jordan, the protagonist, speaks frankly to adolescents at their level. Although Childress uses a modified variation of the Rashomon shifting narrative structure technique—or what she calls "monologue style" first and second person storytelling ("A Candle")—when Rainbow speaks, her voice remains consistent, never breaking for authorial intrusion or comment. When Rainbow speaks, it is as a child, albeit a woman-child carrying far too much responsibility on her young shoulders.
Rainbow's voice is the first voice heard in the novel. Since she is the central protagonist and it is largely her story, she narrates more often than any other character. Initially, Rainbow confides that she has heartaches and that there are good reasons for her woes. Her mother is missing; a social service caseworker is due any moment to remove Rainbow from the apartment she and her mother share; she will be placed, for the third time, in an "Interim Home," that is, foster care. In addition, she has research papers due for school and she has no real communication with her boyfriend. Under the circumstances, Rainbow has ambivalent feelings about her mother and about the life they both live. She realizes that her 29-year-old mother is often irresponsible ("What else is it but abandon when she walk out with a boyfriend, promise to come home soon, then don't show"), immature ("My mother taught me to call her by first name … Kathie for Katherine. I never had a mama and a daddy. I got a Kathie and a Leroy"), and occasionally abusive ("Some of the best presents I ever got was the day after a beatin. Truth is, she was not beatin on me every minute. Sure wouldn't hear about any outsider givin me a bad time"). Nevertheless, Rainbow loves her mother fiercely, has lied for her repeatedly, and would much rather remain at home and wait for her than go to a foster home. But even she doesn't know where Kathie is or when she will return. "Life," in her words, "is complicated." The complications multiply when she is forced to make painful critical assessments of Kathie's virtues and failings, then live her life accordingly—shielding the disruptive pattern of the small family's life from the prying eyes of peers, school officials, and social service agents. The frustrated love for Kathie remains, but it is driven inward and Rainbow, often forced to cope with the outside world alone, becomes an introspective, self-contained, "difficult" child who pulls a protective shell around her sensibilities, daring anyone to knock.
The second dominant voice in the novel belongs to Josephine Lamont, Miss Josie, the "Interim Parent" who takes Rainbow into her home. Anticipating cute and cuddly children (as a result of T.V. images) when she first undertook the responsibilities of foster parenting, Josephine has learned to accept with good grace the chip-shouldered, silent, often sullen teenaged youths sent to her for nurturing. Normally, Miss Josie offers hugs and affection warmly for she believes all profit by hugging. This time, however, when Rainbow returns, Miss Josie almost grudgingly gives of herself, resignedly accepting the burden of Rainbow and her shell. It seems Josephine is busily constructing one of her own. She, too, has heartaches which she imagines Rainbow cannot fathom. A sturdy, gentle, hard working seamstress and an attentive, gracious homemaker in her fifties, Miss Josie attempts to conceal her wounds from Rainbow—her marriage is disintegrating; Harold, her husband, is now more visitor than helpmate.
With her own emotional center destabilized, Josephine must still make room for Rainbow. Casting herself in the role of the martyred woman who must remain the mature responsible adult, Josephine sees in Rainbow merely a defiant child in need of guidance. Completely devaluing Rainbow's attempts to maintain her pride, Josephine perceives only arrogance: "not directly rude but walks around with her nose slightly in the air … as if she's superior and is merely allowing me to handle her situation. She is a definite case of child neglect but puts on like it's all some kind of misunderstanding." Of course, Miss Josie considers herself the "superior" partner in this match. She plays several roles including surrogate parent, guardian, teacher, and mentor "exposing" Rainbow to traditional middle-class values and culture, to multi-cultural perspectives, to the "gray" areas between right, wrong, and hard societal "rules." However, as the novel progresses and both Rainbow and Josephine tell their respective stories and share their observations and perceptions about each other, it becomes quite apparent that Josephine sadly underestimates Rainbow and overplays her role as stoic mentor.
Kathie's is the third narrative voice in the novel. Appropriately, as she is an absentee parent, we do not hear from her often nor are her comments as thoughtful or as perceptive as Rainbow's or Josephine's. Kathie focuses most often on her own dilemma; her daughter's is often an afterthought. Here is a cautionary tale. She was a teenaged parent; she now has a teenaged child whose very presence reminds her that time passes. An attractive woman, Kathie attracts men; but, invariably, the kind with little to give her except physical love and/or physical abuse. Stymied by her inability to do more than barely provide, Kathie vacillates from one stance to another: from firm responsible parent, to negligent abusive parent, to self-centered irresponsible parent. Stranded eighty miles away when a "gig" or job is cancelled, Kathie thinks that with her boyfriend she "could really have a good time except for worryin about Rainbow. No way to forget her with rent due and me stranded … pleasant as a strand might be." Receiving only haphazard child support and not content with the small ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) check, Kathie seeks work to supplement her minimal income. But with no education and no training, the only jobs she finds available are as a go-go dancer, a precarious occupation at best.
Kathie's most earnest attempts at introspection or self-analysis fail miserably; she becomes willing accomplice, participating in her own victimization. Lacking the courage of her daughter or Miss Josie, Kathie capitulates to fear and violence. Once her ill-tempered violent boyfriend falls asleep, Kathie reflects: "No matter how hard I try to do the right thing … I always mess up. I can't love Burke as much as he loves me … maybe can't love anybody else either. Not a man in this world is takin care of me … except this clown, Burke." Yet when Burke awakens and offers her a drink, Kathie's mask is fixed in place. "Okay, sweetie," she replies. "Thank you, Burke. Just a small one … sugar pie." With this, Kathie abdicates any further responsibility for her own life or for Rainbow's; thereafter, she virtually disappears from the novel.
Oddly, although she is neither heroic nor admirable, rather, merely a callow young woman perpetually the Peter Pan, Kathie's capsulized story is strangely compelling and threatens to steal the novel. Indeed, she is the novel's most tragic character though her flaws are not entirely of her own making. But that is another subject; suffice it to reiterate here that hers is a cautionary tale which Childress asks her readers to ponder.
At this first level of Rainbow Jordan we are asked to ponder or consider a great deal. We see a 14-year-old struggling alone to preserve her equilibrium, to maintain her grades, to maintain both her integrity and her identity in the face of powerful peer pressure, to build relationships with adults beyond the parent-child bond. While considering what it means to be rejected or abandoned, Rainbow must also think about her homework and of how to obtain parental permission (with her mother gone) to attend sex education class. Rainbow is a concerned student; and unlike a young Alice Childress who resisted such topics and directives to write on them, Rainbow willingly writes papers on Black high achievers and receives high marks for them. But she recognizes clearly that knowing the "Accomplishments of Black People in America" or the history of "The Black Family in America" or about Black millionaires or celebrities or even about the lives of Black martyrs like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers will not help ease her immediate problem of survival with her soul intact.
We are witnesses, watching Rainbow make the painful passage from child to adult. Her initiation is not easy; but, because Rainbow is perceptive beyond her years, her insights are both useful and keen. Rainbow knows, for instance, that though she is lonely, family "business" is never confided to friends or outsiders. The continual absences of her mother are linked to death. After a class discussion about death and saying goodbye to the dying, Rainbow makes this analogy: "When my mother is away if feel like death; but when she's back it's like life again." Rainbow must cope with her boyfriend Eljay's constant pleas for sex. He resurrects some old lines ("If you love me you'd be willin to give up somethin. What you savin it for?") to assault her position. Eventually, when her alienation from her peer group means confronting humiliation daily, Rainbow does waver and actually plans her first liaison. Fortunately, however, Rainbow discovers that her sense of self worth is not dependent on Eljay and thus, she is able to reexamine her sense of values and reinstate them at the core of her soul.
True, by taking her key and returning home alone to await Eljay, Rainbow has betrayed Miss Josie's trust. Yet having won a painful moral victory, Rainbow is willing to atone for this betrayal if Josephine is willing to listen and try to trust again. But emotionally battered by Harold's desertion—which she has denied and kept hidden—Josephine is unprepared or unable to hear about trust or truth from a child. In that accusatory manner the newly vindicated can adopt, Rainbow uncovers and somewhat painfully points to Josephine's own conceits and deceitfulness. Honest Josephine is not 50 but 57; she uses, kept hidden in a drawer, bleaching cream, false eye lashes, and hair dye; Harold Lamont is not assisting sick relatives as Josie has said but has left for another, younger, woman. Josephine then recognizes they have more in common that a simple "interim" relationship. Finally Josephine notices that Rainbow is not simply a difficult child but is an observant, maturing womanchild. And Rainbow learns to see Josephine as more than a perfect "role-model"—she is a decent middle-aged woman with her private vanities, dashed hopes, and heartaches, just like countless other women. It is an extraordinarily poignant moment when these two isolated individuals face each other honestly, each stripped of pretense or hostility. The reader unmoved is carved from stone.
But moving readers, and demonstrating that her characters are indeed human and not mere symbols, statistics, images, or stones, is clearly a part of Childress's multi-layered strategy, part of the function of her art.
And when we examine the novel at its second level, we see Childress being attentive not only to function but to the other considerations of the Black Aesthetic as well. If, for instance, the function of Black art is to accent racial identity—who we are and where we are going; or if it is to make myths and render the ordinary extraordinary—Childress achieves this "function" and yet accomplishes this in her own singular fashion. Unlike a Mildred Taylor or a Toni Cade Bambara, writers known for their creation of sassy or tough young female protagonists, in Rainbow Jordan Childress makes her heroine, and each of her other characters, walk the high wire in a solo balancing act, alone and unsteady until they learn first to reach inward for self-validation and strength, then outward to touch others who themselves are authentic and thus willing to reach out.
The usual or traditional community support structures typically illustrative of Afro-American life and culture play virtually no role in Rainbow. The Black church, a staple symbol in much Afro-American literature, is notable by its absence. In fact, Josephine's Quaker neighbor teaches Rainbow the Quaker concept of "centering down" rather than prayer to help face a problem. The strong nurturing community with neighbor helping neighbor, a recurring motif in much Afro-American literature, especially that set in the South, is also absent. Rather, Childress unabashedly depicts the divisive, splintered, often antagonistic communities which are, regretfully, a truism of contemporary urban living.
Rainbow's awkward family situation stands as ironic counterpoint to the dominant Afro-American literary tradition that paints a strong cohesive family, either nuclear or extended, as central element in the formation of character. Here we have a portrait of family disintegration, again an all too frequent truism of modern urban life. Authentic female bonding among peers, such as that which occurs in Toni Morrison's Sula (1973) or Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), is also missing. Of course, Rainbow and Josephine "bond" but 14 and 57 is hardly the same peer group. Instead, Rainbow painfully learns the wisdom of that deathless folk pronouncement, "Everybody who say they your friend, ain't." Intriguingly, the one remaining traditional symbol or cultural ritual which Childress permits is a very subtle bow to the blues. Both Rainbow and Josephine suffer from heartache; and heartaches are, as every mature reader knows, a staple of the blues. Even Kathie has heartaches, but she is essentially a "good time girl," another kind of staple blues figure. Heartaches, of course, don't last always and by novel's end, Rainbow and Josephine have hardened their will, left the "low-down" men in their lives behind, and walked away. They suffer still, but they've experienced the catharsis the blues afford.
Because of the skill with which they are invoked, both Rainbow (and certainly the name is weighted with obvious symbolic intent) and Josephine become, despite any intent to the contrary, symbols of survival. They are also powerful images of what it can mean to "hold fast" to one's dreams, as Langston Hughes has said, and to live with integrity and dignity. Childress's commitment to depicting the lives of people within the working-class and middle-class Black communities provides us with, as Trudier Harris says, a "sensitive readable book which entertains quietly and teaches without being overly didactic." Thus, the call for a "functional" art is satisfied at a variety of levels.
"Function" is probably the most significant cornerstone of the Black Aesthetic. The parallel calls for "collectivity" and "commitment" can be addressed summarily. The idea of art "emerging from" and "returning or speaking to the people" translates to a question of audience. Naturally, any novelist hopes that her work will have a large general audience capable of following both the broad sweeping moments in the text and its subtle nuances as well. Though Childress conceptualizes her books as theater pieces, particularly as she stages the settings and the "visual, staged scenes and live actions" ("A Candle"), the voices in the novel call loudly to a Black audience attuned to the inflections, rhythms, structural patterns, and nuances of urban Black folk speech. We see through the voice characters clearly identified with or emerging from a familiar Black experience. We see them operate and function almost totally within the confines of that experience. Childress accents the intraracial community; very little energy is expended on noting interracial tensions. Thus, the reader examines an enhanced segment of Black life with characters who function as guides to various components of the community Josie bridges the working class and the middle class; Kathie "represents" the bottom rung, the hand-to-mouth existence so many endure. Rainbow struggles to keep her feet on the right road; her aim, troubles not withstanding, is to march on to victory.
Committed or committing art calls for a commitment to revolution and change. That "directive" which grates so harshly on the celebrated freedom of the artist, is nonetheless imprinted on the thematic structure of the novel. The revolutions Childress speaks to, however, are revolutions of habit and heart and mind rather than violent large scale social revolutions. Her revolutionary call to arms is embodied in the dictum: each one, reach one, teach one. Rainbow and Josephine learn from each other; each also teaches the other something significant about facing life's complexities. Kathie is something of the "counter-revolutionary" character. She is a conservative reactionary who refuses to change, refuses to accept responsibility for her own life, preferring the worn illusion of female dependence on dominant men. Rainbow and Josephine survive because adversity has taught them resiliency and toughness. Theirs is a strength which emerges through the process of change, by a "revolution" if you will, in their approach to life. They will march on until the victory is won.
Consistently, just as Mari Evans demanded, Alice Childress in Rainbow Jordan speaks "truth to the people." The novel "talks sense" to us; it "frees" readers with any awareness at all to see the honesty, reason, love, courage and caring interwoven as part of its message. Coincidentally or not, in Rainbow Jordan Childress has redressed the Black Aesthetic and given it a daring new look with a vivid splash of contemporary color.