Alice October Childress Essay - Critical Essays

Childress, Alice October


Alice Childress October 12, 1920–August 14, 1994

American dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, editor, and author of children's books.

For further information on Childress's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 12 and 15.

Childress is primarily known for her young adult novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973). A highly controversial work that was part of a censorship case brought before the United States Supreme Court, the novel is set in Harlem and details a teenager's growing addiction to heroin. Each chapter of the book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1974 and which earned Childress a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1975, is told from the perspective of various individuals with whom the protagonist interacts, including his drug pusher, peers, teachers, and family members. Childress is additionally known for her work as a playwright. Although often characterized as a critically neglected dramatist, Childress was instrumental in the genesis of black theater in America in the twentieth century: 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 (1955) she became the first woman to win an OBIE Award. In her dramas, which include Florence (1949), Wedding Band (1966), Wine in the Wilderness (1969), Sea Island Song (1977), and Moms (1987), Childress frequently focused on such topics as African-American history, racism, miscegenation, drug abuse, and black-white relations. Many of these works, like A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, have been the subject of controversy. Childress, however, never sought notoriety and maintained that she drew her inspiration from everyday life and people. In a 1984 essay entitled "A Candle in a Gale Wind," she stated: "[I] write about those who come in second, or not at all … and the intricate and magnificent patterns of a loser's life. No matter how many celebrities we may accrue, they cannot substitute for the masses of human beings. My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."

Principal Works

Florence (drama) 1949
Just a Little Simple [adaptor; from the short story collection Simple Speaks His Mind by Langston Hughes] (drama) 1950
Gold through the Trees (drama) 1952
Trouble in Mind (drama) 1955
Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life (prose) 1956
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (drama) 1966
The Freedom Drum (drama) 1969; also performed as Young Martin Luther King, 1969
String [adaptor; from the short story "A Piece of String" by Guy de Maupassant] (drama) 1969
Wine in the Wilderness: A Comedy-Drama (drama) 1969
Wine in the Wilderness (screenplay) 1969
Mojo: A Black Love Story (drama) 1970
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (novel) 1973
Wedding Band (screenplay) 1973
When the Rattlesnake Sounds (drama) [first publication] 1975
Let's Hear It for the Queen (drama) [first publication] 1976
Sea Island Song (drama) 1977
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (screenplay) 1978
A Short Walk (novel) 1979
String (screenplay) 1979
Rainbow Jordan (novel) 1981
Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (drama) 1987
Those Other People (novel) 1989

∗This work has also been produced as Gullah.


Alice Childress with Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (interview date 1987)

SOURCE: An interview in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, edited by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 62-74.

[In the following excerpt, Childress discusses her works and writing process.]

[Childress]: I wrote my play Wedding Band as a remembrance of the intellectual poor. The poor, genteel and sensitive people who are seamstresses, coal carriers, candy-makers, sharecroppers, bakers, baby caretakers, housewives, foot soldiers, penny-candy sellers, vegetable peelers, who are somehow able to sustain within themselves the poet's heart, sensitivity and appreciation of pure emotion, the ability to freely spend tears and laughter without saving them up for a rainy day. I was raised by and among such people living on the poorest blocks in Harlem and have met many more on the boundary lines of the segregated life—the places where black, white, brown, yellow and red sometimes meet—in bus stations, train and plane waiting rooms, on lines where we pay gas, light and telephone bills.

Wedding Band kept coming at me from hidden, unexpected places, the characters called on my mind while I was trying to write something else, demanding attention, getting together, coming into being. It was a play I did not want to write, about people few others wanted to hear from … I thought. It somehow seemed to be answering back all the stage and screen stories about rich, white landowners and their "octoroon" mistresses.

Such stories meant nothing in my life. I am a black woman of light complexion, have no white relatives except on the other side of slavery, and have experienced the sweetness, joy and bitterness of living almost entirely within the Harlem community. I really did not wish to beat the drum for an interracial couple and yet there they were in front of me, not giving a damn about public opinion of this or that past day. It was like being possessed by rebel spirits, ideas clinging, taking over and starting my day for me. Instead of a joyous experience, writing the play became a trial, a rough journey through reams of paper. Characters know; they won't be fooled, not even by their medium, the writer. They allow you to write them, pushing you along until they're satisfied that they've done their thing to the utmost of your ability.

I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised on 118th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues in Harlem, New York City. My grandmother and her friends were not ashamed of living: "Got it to do!" they said. When people were ill, neighbors rallied and brought various home remedies to the bedside, seldom a doctor. Those days are almost gone, thank God. Who wants to live with one foot in hell just for the sake of nostalgia? Our time is forever now! Today our youngsters can freely discuss sex. Soon they will even be able to openly discuss one of the results of sex—life. I also remember death, funerals, just before it went out of style to have the last service within the home instead of at the undertaking parlor. In one corner of the kitchen, a big truckdriver of a man wept tears into a large handkerchief, his shoulders shaking with grief: "Why did she leave us? Only last week I was talking to her and answered real short: 'Shut up.' I said that to her … and now she's gone." And those there gathered answered him with healing words of comfort: "Well, God knows you loved her, don't take it so hard, you did your best." They brought him through that day. Other men, richer and smarter, had to go through three years of therapy to find the reasons why and why and why … and to know there's always another way. On our block there was prostitution, but we were so damned blind until even the prostitutes were called "Miss" Margaret or "Miss" Beatrice or whatever. And they did not beckon to men until our backs were turned, most of the time. Heroin was not yet King of the Ghetto and a boy would not dream of killing his grandmother or hurting his mama or her friends in order to pour cooked opium dust through a hole in his arm. But they weren't "the good old days." The only good days are ahead. The characters kept chasing me down. Men in love with "nothing to offer." Women who couldn't or wouldn't hold back their emotions "for the sake of the race." They tap at the brain and move a pen to action in the middle of the night. They are alive, they really are, pushing and shoving interfering creators out of the way. Now, in this slot of time, they return singing old songs about inner discovery. Other characters keep knocking at our doors, pushing, pulling, tearing at seams of life. Poets, novelists, painters, playwrights stand around shifting from foot to foot, trying to keep score. Ordinary people know more about how to live with love and hate than given credit for … even though they're never seen on talk shows.

[Interviewer]: There was a difference between the white criticism of Wedding Band [a play whose central characters are an interracial couple; it premiered in 1966] and what the black critics had to say, wasn't there?

The white criticism was that the interracial couple needn't have stayed [in a Jim Crow state], that they could have gone away; they felt the male character, the white baker, should have turned his back on his mother and sister and escaped. Now, that's a very hard thing for poor people to do. It's easier for wealthy people. They can leave and send money home to their dependents. This baker is his family's livelihood. His mother contributed all of her money to his small bakery shop. For him to walk away from family and debts is almost unheard of in poor communities.

The black critics' objections were: Why talk about this interracial issue at all? Why couldn't I just write about a black couple? It may have sounded as though I were praising interracial love but, in fact, this was not my objective. In almost everything I write there are black couples, and there is also one in Wedding Band. But this was a true story my grandmother had told me, about a black woman named Miss Julia, who lived across the street from her in South Carolina and who "kept company" with a white butcher. I made him a baker in the play because I thought it would be more palatable for the audience than butchering. Black critics felt that the character I based on Miss Julia should not have wanted to marry a white man, no matter that this situation often occurs in real life. The black audience would have been more comfortable if Julia had rejected her white lover. That was true even of the last production of the play at Joe Papp's theater. [The New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, 1972]. It had been done earlier at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor [1966] and in Chicago, where we had our greatest success. Black audiences in Chicago really liked the play. They sold out the whole six weeks, standing room only; you couldn't get tickets.

Did you find less resistance to your artistic vision in the publishing world?

Yes I did. I didn't have to fight and struggle as in the theater because, almost by accident, an editor [at Coward McCann] came to me who knew of my playwriting—the late Ferdinand Monjo, who was also a noted children's author. He said, "Alice, you've said so much about drugs in your writing, why don't you really put some time into it and do a book?" That's how I came to write A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. He told me it had to be a young adult book because he was a young adult book editor, and young adults needed such a book.

In A Hero … each chapter represents a different character's point of view: the boy on drugs, the boy's mother, the boy's teacher, and so on. Is this an instance of your playwright's training overlapping into your fiction?

Yes—theater and film. I was very impressed by the film Rashomon [by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa]. A woman was raped; she tells her story and the other characters tell their stories. Each one's version of the event is reenacted within the film. But all were lying except one, who was observing from a distance. And when he tells what happened, you understand why all the others lied. But I do an opposite thing. In my writing, all the stories differ, but I see that you can get ten different stories out of people all telling the truth. We don't all view things the same way, each perspective is different. Many-leveled narration is something I do well. It's true to theater. When I'm writing a character that I see as a villain, I try to take the villain's side and believe in the righteousness of the villainous act. In A Hero … we pondered long about cutting out the drug pusher's side of the story.

Because it was a book for young people?

Yes. The drug pusher is so convincing about the rightness of the acts and the reader feels for him. Monjo was very helpful. After a great deal of talk about it, we decided to leave the character in.

A Hero went as far as the Supreme Court in a book-banning case, along with books by eight other authors. Will you discuss censorship?

Nine books got to the Supreme Court, and mine was one of them. I don't know if I'm the first or only woman whose book got to the Supreme Court on a banning. They also banned Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter because it was sympathetic to an unmarried pregnant woman. In one school, the authorities banned Romeo and Juliet, saying the Nurse was a poor role model because Juliet's parents had hired her to take care of...

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Sheila Rule (obituary date 19 August 1994)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, August 19, 1994, p. A24.

[In the following, Rule provides a brief overview of Childress's career.]

Alice Childress, an actress and a writer of plays and novels, including A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, died on Sunday at Astoria General Hospital in Queens. She was 77 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was cancer, said her husband, Nathan Woodard.

In 1973, in a review of A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich in The New York Times, the playwright Ed Bullins wrote: "There are too few books that convince...

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Jeanne-Marie A. Miller (essay date June 1977)

SOURCE: "Images of Black Women in Plays by Black Playwrights," in CLA Journal, Vol. XX, No. 4, June, 1977, pp. 494-507.

[In the following excerpt, Miller discusses Childress's depiction of black women in her best-known plays.]

In 1933, in an essay entitled "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors," the brilliant scholar-critic Sterling A. Brown wrote that Blacks had met with as great injustice in the literature of America as they had in the life of their country. In American literature, then, including the drama, Blacks had been depicted most often as negative stereotypes: the contented slave, the...

(The entire section is 7431 words.)