Alice October Childress

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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 wretched freeman, the comic Negro, the brute Negro, the tragic mulatto, the local color Negro, and the exotic primitive. Black female characters have been scarce in only one of these categories—the brute Negro. They have been most plentiful as the faithful servant. In American drama, where, seemingly, many more roles have been written for men than women, Black or white, it is the Black female character who has faced double discrimination—that of sex and race.

As early as the nineteenth century Black women have been written about by playwrights of their own race. Melinda, in William Wells Brown's The Escape, for example, is a mulatto who is not tragic, and Rachel, in Angelina Grimke's early twentieth-century play of the same name, is a young, educated, middle-class Black woman who protests against the indignities suffered by her race. Though there were many plays written by Blacks after the dawn of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960's produced many new Black playwrights who brought to the stage their intimate inside visions of Black life and the role that Black women play in it.

Alice Childress, a veteran actress, director, and playwright, in several published plays, has placed a Black woman at the center. Childress noted early [in her "A Woman Playwright Speaks Her Mind," in Anthology of the American Negro, edited by Lindsay Patterson, 1969] that the Black woman had been absent as an important subject in popular American drama except as an "empty and decharacterized faithful servant."

Childress' Florence, a short one-act play, is set in a railroad station waiting room in a very small town in the South. The time of the play is the recent past. Emphasized is the misunderstanding by whites of Blacks, brought on by prejudice and laws that keep the two races apart. The rail separating the two races in the station is symbolic.

In the station a Black woman of little means, with a card-board suitcase and her lunch in a shoebox, has a chance meeting with a white woman also bound for New York. In the conversation that takes place between them, the prejudices of the whites and their myths about Blacks are exposed, such as that of the tragic mulatto. Revealed also is the determination to keep Blacks in the places set aside for them by whites. Marge, the Black woman's daughter living at home, has accepted her place; Florence, the daughter seeking an acting career in New York, has not. Because of the revelations of the white woman, Florence's mother, enroute originally to bring her daughter home and end her fumbling New York career, changes her mind and instead mails the travel money to Florence so that she can remain where she is. Thus, a docile-appearing Black woman, who stays in her place in the South, acts to help her child transcend the barriers placed there by those trying...

(This entire section contains 7431 words.)

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to circumscribe her existence.

Childress' two-act comedy Trouble in Mind, while concentrating on discrimination in the American theatre, also brings into focus the troublesome racial conditions in the United States of the 1950's. The framework of Trouble in Mind is the rehearsal of the play Chaos in Belleville, a melodrama with an anti-lynching theme, in reality a white writer's distorted view of Blacks. The principal character, Wiletta Mayer, a middle-aged Black actress, a veteran of "colored" musicals, appears at first to have found a way to survive in the prejudiced world of the theatre. Coerced by the white director, however, she explodes and reveals her long pent-up frustrations. Specifically, Wiletta disagrees with the action of the character she is playing—a Black mother who sends her son out to be lynched by a mob seething with hatred because the Black man had tried to vote. Wiletta, alone among the play's interracial cast, demands script changes that will portray Black life realistically. Though she loses her job in the attempt, she in no way seems to regret the stand she has taken after a lifetime of acceptance.

In Wine in the Wilderness, Tommy Marie, a young Black woman from the ghetto, teaches real pride to her newly acquired middle-class acquaintances. This play is set during the Black revolutionary period of the 1960's. It is one of those Harlem summers popularly described as long and hot. A riot is taking place outside the apartment of Bill, a Black artist currently engaged in painting a triptych entitled Wine in the Wilderness—three images of Black womanhood. Two canvases have been completed: one depicting innocent Black girlhood and the other, perfect Black womanhood, an African queen, this artist's statement on what a Black woman should be. The third canvas is empty because Bill has not found a suitable model for the lost Black woman, the leavings of society. Unknown to Tommy, she has been picked out by two of Bill's friends to serve as the model for that hopeless creature. At first sight Tommy is unpolished and untutored but is essentially a warm, likeable human being. Once a live-in domestic and now a factory worker, at the present time she has been burned out and then locked out of her apartment as a result of the riot.

Later, dressed in an African throw cloth and with her cheap wig removed, Tommy undergoes a transformation as she overhears Bill, to whom she is attracted, describe his painting of the African queen. Believing that he is referring to her, she assumes the qualities he praises: "Regal … grand … magnificent, fantastic…." For the first time she feels loved and admired. While Bill is trying to get into the mood to paint her, she recites the history of the Black Elks and the A. M. E. Zion Church, all part of her background. With her new look and the new knowledge he has gained about her, Bill cannot now paint Tommy as he had intended, for she no longer fits the image he sought.

The next day Oldtimer, a hanger-on, unthinkingly tells Tommy about the three-part painting and the unflattering role she was to play in it. She, in anger, teaches Bill and his middle-class friends about themselves—the hatred they have for "flesh and blood Blacks"—the masses, as if they, the others, have no problems. To the white racist, they are all "niggers" she tells them. But she has learned—she is "Wine in the Wilderness," "a woman that's a real one and a good one," not one on canvas that cannot talk back. The real thing is inside, she states.

Bill changes the thrust of his painting. Oldtimer—"the guy who was here before there were scholarships and grants and stuff like that, the guy they kept outta the schools, the man the factories wouldn't hire, the union wouldn't let him join …"—becomes one part of the painting; Bill's two friends—"Young Man and Woman workin' together to do our thing"—become another. Tommy, the model for the center canvas, is "Wine in the Wilderness," who has come "through the biggest riot of all,… 'Slavery'" and is still moving on against obstacles placed there by both whites and her own people. Bill's painting takes on flesh. Tommy has been the catalyst for change.

Unlike Childress' other plays, Wedding Band is set in an earlier period—South Carolina in 1918. The central character, Julia Augustine, the Black woman around whom the story revolves, is an attractive woman in her thirties. A talented seamstress, she has only an eighth-grade education. The play opens on the tenth anniversary of her ill-fated love affair with Herman, a white baker who has a small shop. This illegal love affair is the theme of the play. In direct violation of South Carolina's laws against miscegenation, the pair has been meeting and loving clandestinely for years. On this day, in celebration of their anniversary, Herman gives Julia a wedding band on a thin chain to be worn around her neck. This day, too, is the first that Julia has spent in this impoverished neighborhood. She has moved often because her forbidden love affair has caused her to be ostracized by both Blacks and whites.

A series of encounters clearly delineates the kind of woman Julia really is. Though she is lonely between Herman's visits and sometimes allows wine to fill in the void, she is a woman of strength. She endures the criticism of her affair. She is unselfish, warm, and forgiving. With compassion she reads a letter to a new neighbor who cannot read. Unknown to her lover's mother, Julia sews and shops for her. When confronted by this woman who hates her and whose rigid racism drives her to exclaim that she would rather be dead than disgraced, Julia rises to her full strength and spews out the hatred that momentarily engulfs her. And even in her sorrow she is able to give a Black soldier a fitting sendoff to the war and the promise that the world will be better for all Blacks after the war's termination. In the end, Julia forgives her weak, timid lover who is dying from influenza. He could never leave South Carolina for a region more suitable for their love and marriage, he explains, because he had to repay his mother the money she gave him for the bakery. In reality, history stands between Julia and Herman. South Carolina belongs to both of them, but together they could never openly share the state. The promised escape to the North and marriage never materialize. Julia stands at the end of a long line of Childress' strong Black women characters. In this backyard community setting of Wedding Band are other images of Black womanhood—the self-appointed representative of her race, the mother protecting her son from the dangers awaiting him in the white South, and the woman, abused by a previous husband, waiting loyally for the return of her thoughtful and kind merchant marine lover.

John O. Killens (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Literary Genius of Alice Childress," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 129-33.

[In the following essay, Killens discusses various aspects of Childress's career, lauding her numerous accomplishments.]

There were the Childress plays up at the Club Baron in Harlem in the late forties and early fifties, including Florence, Just a Little Simple, Gold Through the Trees (a play about Harriet Tubman), every one of them an exuberant celebration of the Black experience with emphasis always on the heroic aspect of that experience in the constant struggle against racist oppression. One left the theater after an evening with Alice Childress imbued with pride and with the spirit to struggle. It was as if whenever Alice Childress sat before the typewriter she heard the voice of Frederick Douglass speaking to her down through the ages of a universal truth that is never outmoded, a truth that time can never render obsolete: "If there is no struggle there is no progress…. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or with both." (Emphasis mine.)

Then there was the experience in the Village in 1955 at the Greenwich Mews with her play Trouble in Mind. What I had felt uptown about her artistic potential, her power as a great humorist, came into full bloom. If my memory serves me, it was a comedic drama about a group of Black actors trying to make a go of it in a play conceived and directed by a "well-meaning" white man. In this play Childress demonstrated a talent and ability to write humor that had social impact. Even though one laughed throughout the entire presentation, there was, inescapably, the understanding that although one was having an undeniably emotional and a profoundly intellectual experience, it was also political. One of Childress's great gifts: to have you laughing, not at the characters but with them. It is a rare gift that does not come easily. Humor is of serious import, not a thing to take for granted. One gets the feeling that the writer loves the people she writes about. Love of life and people, accent on struggle, humor as a cultural weapon. Love, struggle, humor. These are the hallmarks of her craft, of her artistry; these, like a trademark or a fingerprint.

In the volume entitled Like One of the Family, the writer uses satire and humor as a cutting edge against prejudice and hypocrisy. Like One of the Family utilizes a series of conversations between Mildred, a Black domestic, and her friend Marge. Segments of these chapters were first published in a Black weekly newspaper. From the first page to the last, Family is ethnic, it is idiomatic, it is in the great tradition of signifying; notwithstanding, it is universal. For example, here is a quotation from the very first chapter.

Hi Marge! I had me one hectic day … Well, I had to take out my crystal ball and give Mrs. C … a thorough reading … When she has company, for example, she'll holler out to me from the living room to the kitchen. "Mildred dear! Be sure and eat both of those lamb chops for your lunch!" Now you know she wasn't doing a thing but trying to prove to company how "good and kind" she was to the servant, she had told me already to eat those chops. Today she had a girlfriend of hers over to lunch … and she called me over to introduce me to the woman. Oh no, Marge! I didn't object to that at all. I greeted the lady and then went back to my work … And then it started! I could hear her talkin' just as loud … and she says to her friend, "We just love her! She's like one of the family and she just adores our little Carol! We don't know what we would do without her! We don't think of her as a servant!"

… When the guest leaves I go in the living room and says, "Mrs. C … I want to have a talk with you."

"By all means," she says.

I drew up a chair and read her thusly: "Mrs. C …, you are a pretty nice person to work for, but I wish you would please stop talking about me like I was a cocker spaniel or a poll parrot or a kitten … Now you just sit there and hear me out.

In the first place, you do not love me; you may be fond of me, but that is all. In the second place, I am not just like one of the family at all! The family eats in the dining room and I eat in the kitchen. Your mama borrows your lace tablecloth for her company and your son entertains his friends in your parlor, your daughter takes her afternoon nap on the living room couch and the puppy sleeps on your satin spread … and whenever your husband gets tired of something you are talkin' about he says, 'Oh, for Pete's sake, forget it …' So you can see I am not just like one of the family.

Now for another thing, I do not just adore your little Carol. I think she is a likeable child, but she is also fresh and sassy. I know you call it 'uninhibited' and that is the way you want your child to be, but luckily my mother taught me some inhibitions or else I would smack little Carol once in a while when she's talkin' to you like you're a dog, but I just laugh it off the way you do because she is your child and I am not like one of the family.

Now when you say, 'We don't know what we'd do without her' this is a polite lie … because I know that if I dropped dead or had a stroke, you would get somebody to replace me.

You think it is a compliment when you say, 'We don't think of her as a servant …,' but after I have worked myself into a sweat cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen … making the beds … cooking the lunch … washing the dishes and ironing Carol's pinafores … I do not feel like no weekend guest. I feel like a servant, and in the face of that I have been meaning to ask you for a slight raise which will make me feel much better toward everyone here and make me know my work's appreciated.

Now I hope you will stop talkin' about me in my presence and that we will get along like a good employer and employee should."

Marge! She was almost speechless but she apologized and said she'd talk to her husband about a raise … I knew things were progressing because Carol came in the kitchen and she did not say, "I want some bread and jam!" but she did say, "Please, Mildred, will you fix me a slice of bread and jam!"

I'm going upstairs, Marge. Just look … You done messed up that buttonhole.

The work brings to mind Langston Hughes' man of the people, Jesse B. Semple. Childress's humor is in the profoundest tradition, i.e., humor with a political vengeance. What Mildred is really talking about is the face of oppression in the domestic arena: the tacky ways of the white folk she works for, how they work the hell out of her, but how, when it serves their own egotistical purposes, showing off, they suddenly refer to her as one of the family. "Why, she's just like one of the family!"—the one that's never invited to sit at the dinner table, not that sitting at the table would be a big deal for Mildred.

Childress's drama Wedding Band, a play about an ailing white man and a Black woman living together in a Carolina town, details the Black woman's struggle against the racist attitudes of the town and against the members of the white man's middle-class family who are outraged by the relationship. Childress's other writings had seemed to have a total and timely relevance to the Black experience in the U.S. of A.; Wedding Band was a deviation. Perhaps the critic's own mood or bias was at fault. For one who was involved artistically, creatively, intellectually, and actively in the human rights struggle unfolding at the time, it is difficult, even in retrospect, to empathize or identify with the heroine's struggle for her relationship with the white man, symbolically the enemy incarnate of Black hopes and aspirations. Nevertheless, again, at the heart of Wedding Band was the element of Black struggle, albeit a struggle difficult to relate to. As usual, the art and craftsmanship were fine; the message, however, appeared out of sync with the times.

Her novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich was adapted for a film production. It is the story of Benjie, a thirteen-year-old drug addict. There are some awesomely beautiful and powerful moments in this novel. One that comes immediately and vividly to mind is the poignant scene in which Butler Craig, the "stepfather," saves spaced-out Benjie from falling from a Harlem rooftop, even as the boy begs his stepfather to let him go. "'Let go, Butler … let me die. Drop me, man!' He's flailing his legs, trying to work loose my hold, hollerin and fighting to die. 'Let me be dead!'"

There are times in the book, however, when the characters, the victims, in this novel are their worst enemies. They appear unable to get out of their own way. Perhaps life is a treadmill, but the enemy of the people, the hand of the oppressor, is not clearly delineated in this one. Mari Evans says: "To identify the enemy is to free the people." Which just goes to prove that no one is perfect. Even an expert marksperson like Alice Childress does not hit the bull's-eye every time she picks up the rifle.

Alice Childress's latest and most rewarding novel is A Short Walk. "Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave—and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way." This is the saga of Cora James from just before her fifth birthday in a racist Charleston, South Carolina.

Alice Childress brings the history of the times alive, as we, along with Cora James, join the Garvey movement, the U.N.I.A. (Universal Negro Improvement Association), the fabulous pomp, the militant pageantry, the grand and colorful parades through Harlem, the African Orthodox Church. It's all here, along with the struggle for race pride and identification with Africa. "Back to Africa!"—"Africa for the Africans! At home and abroad!" You've seen it written about many times before, but never has it come alive like this. It is history relived. We go with the Movement's ship, the Black Star Line's S.S. Frederick Douglass (Yarmouth) on its maiden voyage to Cuba. The writer's genius, her artistry, is her ability to totally involve you in the happenings, as you, the reader, happen along with them. You emerge from the spell of her writing with the feeling of a lived experience.

Alice Childress is a tremendously gifted artist who has consistently used her genius to effect change in the world: to change the image we have of ourselves as human beings, Black and white. Her primary and special concern has been the African image. She knew that Black was beautiful when so many of us thought that Black Beauty was the name of a storybook horse, a figment of a writer's fantasy. Her gift has been used as an instrument against oppression; notwithstanding, she is always the consummate artist, telling her story powerfully and artistically. Her writing is always realistic, avoiding somehow the indulgence of wallowing in quagmires of despair and pessimism. After all, life is a short walk. There is so little time and so much living to achieve. Perhaps her greatest gift, along with her satiric bent and the thematic accent on struggle, is the leitmotif of love for people, particularly her own people. I have come away from most of her writing feeling mighty damn proud of the human race, especially the African aspect of it. Portraying it with great fidelity in all of its meanness, its pettiness, its prejudices, its superstitions, Childress captures most of all its capacity to overcome, to be better than it is, or ever could be, its monumental capacity for change.

At a writers' conference sponsored in 1974 at Howard University by Dr. Stephen Henderson and the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, writer Toni Cade Bambara said: "The responsibility of an artist representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible." At the same time, when so many Black writers have decided that the thing to do is to "get over" with the great white racist publishing establishment, despite the price one may be forced to pay in terms of self-esteem, human dignity, and artistic integrity, Childress has made a deliberate choice of weapons; she has chosen the weapon of creative struggle. Black blessings on you, Alice Childress.

Elizabeth Brown-Guillory (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange: Carving a Place for Themselves on the American Stage," in Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 25-49.

[An American educator and playwright, Brown-Guillory is the author of several works on contemporary drama. In the following excerpt, she offers an overview of Childress's principal plays, acknowledging her contributions to African-American drama.]

Alice Childress is the only black woman playwright in America whose plays have been written, produced, and published over a period of four decades. Like a giant in a straitjacket, Childress has remained faithful to the American theater even when it has looked upon her with blind eyes and turned to her with deaf ears. Having had plays produced in New York City, across the United States, and in Europe, Childress' legacy to the American theater is monumental. In her thirty-eight years of writing for the American stage, Childress admits that she has never compromised her vision. Her sagacity and total commitment became apparent when she, almost in a whisper commented [in an interview conducted in 1987], "I will not keep quiet, and I will not stop telling the truth." Though she writes mainly about the genteel poor, a diverse audience looks to her for the truth that she gives to them in numerous small doses and without adulteration.

Alice Childress has written plays that incorporate the liturgy of the black church, traditional music, African mythology, folklore, and fantasy. She has experimented by writing sociopolitical, romantic, biographical, historical, and feminist plays. Striving to find new and dynamic ways of expressing old themes in an historically conservative theater, Childress has opened the door for other black playwrights, particularly Hansberry and Shange, to make dramaturgical advances. Her litany of "firsts" invariably paved the way for a line of black women playwrights to insist upon craft and integrity over commercialism. Doris Abramson [in her Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925–1959] writes, "Alice Childress has been, from the beginning, a crusader and a writer who refuses to compromise…. She refuses productions of her plays if the producer wants to change them in any way that distorts her intentions."

Alice Childress writes about poor women for whom the act of living is sheer heroism. In fact, Childress' own background resembles that of the heroines in her plays. In a recent essay, "Knowing the Human Condition" [in Black American Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller, 1981], Childress acknowledges that her grandmother was a slave. Claiming that she is neither proud nor ashamed of her past, Childress has observed:

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' contributions to the American theater have been varied and consistent. In the early 1940s, Childress helped to found the American Negro Theater (ANT), a phenomenal organization that served as a beacon of hope for countless black playwrights, actors, and producers, such as Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Frank Silvera, and others. ANT, like the African Grove Theatre that was founded in 1821–1822 and marks the beginning of "alternative theatre" for blacks, has been instrumental in institutionalizing black theater. Another major achievement of Childress, a long time Broadway and off-Broadway actress, and a member of the Author's League of the Dramatists' Guild, is that she was instrumental in the early 1950s in initiating advanced, guaranteed pay for union off-Broadway contracts in New York City.

Childress became one of the beneficiaries of her efforts to establish equity standards for off-Broadway productions. Her first two plays, Just a Little Simple (1950) and Gold Through the Trees (1952), were the first plays by a black woman to be professionally produced, i.e., performed by unionized actors. Three years later, Childress became the first black woman to win the Obie Award for the best original, off-Broadway play of the year with her production of Trouble in Mind (1955), which was subsequently produced by the BBC in London. Ten years later, Childress' Wedding Band (1966) was broadcast nationally on ABC television. Wine in the Wilderness (1969) was presented on National Educational Television (NET). With all of the kudos of a seasoned playwright, the author basked in the glory of the officially designated Alice Childress Week in Columbia and Charleston during the production of Sea Island Song (1979), commissioned by the South Carolina Arts Commission to capture the flavor of the Gullah-speaking people of the area.

As a result of Childress' innovative achievements and commitment to quality theater, she has been the recipient of a host of awards and honors, including writer-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony; featured author on a BBC panel discussion on "The Negro in the American Theater;" winner of a Rockefeller grant administered through The New Dramatists and a John Golden Fund for Playwrights; and a Harvard appointment to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (now Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute), from which she received a graduate medal for work completed during her tenure.

Serving as spokesperson for the masses of poor, Childress continues to write about "the complexity of relationships between blacks and whites and the various ways blacks survive in contemporary society" [Dedria Bryfonski, ed., Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 12, 1980]. Sharply observant and unsentimental, she is one of the most influential theater pioneers whose works serve as a precursor to the black naturalistic plays of the 1960s, and whose efforts substantially shaped the ethnic theater of black experience of the 1970s and 1980s.

Alice Childress, born on October 12, 1920, in Charleston South Carolina, is an actress, playwright, novelist, essayist, columnist, lecturer, and theater consultant. At the age of five, Childress boarded a train for New York where she grew up in Harlem. Childress attended Public School 81, The Julia Ward Howe Junior High School and, for three years, Wadleigh High School, at which time she had to drop out because both her grandmother and mother had died, leaving her to fend for herself. Forced to assume the responsibility of teaching herself, Childress discovered the public library and attempted to read two books a day.

Beginning in the early 1940s, Childress began establishing herself as an actress and writer, during which time she worked to support herself and her only child, Jean, in a number of odd jobs, including assistant machinist, photo retoucher, domestic worker, salesperson, and insurance agent. [Trudier] Harris believes that "the variety of experiences and the constant contact with working-class people undoubtedly influenced Childress' approach to the development of characters and her overall writing philosophy. Her characters in fiction and drama included domestic workers, washerwomen, seamstresses, and the unemployed, as well as dancers, artists, and teachers…."

Childress' first play, Florence, produced by the American Negro Theatre in 1949, levels an indictment against presumptuous whites who think they know more about blacks than blacks know about themselves. It is also a play about a need for blacks to reject stereotyped roles. On another level, Florence pays tribute to black parents who encourage their children to reach their fullest potential at all cost. It reveals Childress' superb skill at characterization, dialogue, and conflict.

Florence is set in a Jim Crow railway station where Mama discovers that Mrs. Carter, a white liberal, is irrepressibly racist. Mama, awaiting a train bound for Harlem, confides in Mrs. Carter that her daughter has been able to secure only minor and infrequent theater roles. Vehemently trying to persuade Mama to make Florence give up her dreams of becoming an actress before she becomes completely disillusioned, Mrs. Carter explains that Florence's efforts are futile, especially since she, a white woman, is an actress who cannot find work. Mama becomes out-raged when, after asking her to help her daughter, Mrs. Carter speaks of getting Florence a job as a maid. Resolving not to go to New York, Mama sends her last money to Florence with a note attached saying "keep trying."

The theme of rejecting stereotypes and of not compromising one's integrity is further explored in Childress' Trouble in Mind, which was produced at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York in 1955. Running for ninety-one performances, Trouble in Mind won for Childress the Obie Award for the best original off-Broadway play of the 1955–1956 season and was subsequently produced twice in 1964 by the BBC in London. When offered a Broadway option, Childress refused because the producer wanted her to make radical script changes. Alice Childress says of her rejection of the Broadway offer, "Most of our problems have not seen the light of day in our works, and much has been pruned from our manuscripts before the public has been allowed a glimpse of a finished work. It is ironical that those who oppose us are in a position to dictate the quality of our contributions" [Abramson].

Childress' Trouble in Mind needed "pruning" because it is a satiric drama about white writers, producers, and directors who, because they are ignorant of blacks, support or defend inaccurate portraits. Childress insists in this drama that blacks must maintain their integrity and identity in the theater, refusing to accept roles that characterize them as exotic or half-human creatures, regardless of the monetary losses.

Making use of the play-within-a-play, Trouble in Mind is set on a Broadway stage where the characters rehearse Chaos in Belleville, a play written by a white about blacks. Wiletta Mayer, a veteran black actress, offends the sensibilities of the white director when she asserts that no black mother, as in Chaos in Belleville, would tell her son to give himself up to be lynched, regardless of his innocence or guilt. Appalled by other untruths, Wiletta announces that she will not perform unless some changes are made in the script. Because of her frankness, she is summarily dropped from the cast.

Trouble in Mind, Childress' first professionally produced play outside of Harlem, received glowing reviews. Loften Mitchell, in Black Drama [1967], commented, "Now the professional theatre saw her outside of her native Harlem, writing with swift stabs of humor, her perception and her consummate dramatic gifts." Equally laudatory is the assessment made by Arthur Gelb of the New York Times [5 November 1955], who says that Childress has "some witty and penetrating things to say about the dearth of roles for Negro actors in contemporary theatre, the cut-throat competition for these parts and the fact that Negro actors often find themselves playing stereotyped roles in which they cannot bring themselves to believe."

Like Trouble in Mind, Wedding Band (1966) was deemed controversial and missed Broadway because of Childress' refusal to make script changes that would alter her intent. Produced at the University of Michigan in 1969, and at the Public Theatre in New York during the 1972–1973 season, Wedding Band became the first play by Childress to be televised nationally on ABC in 1974. Wedding Band centers around an interracial love affair that is destroyed by white and black bigotry. The theme that emerges is that blacks and whites must learn to judge each other on individual merit, instead of blaming an entire race each time a white-black relationship, intimate or casual, terminates.

Set in a small town in South Carolina in 1918, the plot revolves around Julia and Herman, who have been secretly meeting for ten years because of state laws forbidding interracial marriage. Giving Julia a wedding band on a chain that she can wear only around her neck until they leave the South, Herman encourages her to go to New York to prepare for his coming within a year, at which time he hopes to have settled a debt owed his mother. Calamity strikes when Herman falls sick with influenza at Julia's house in the heart of the black community, an occurrence that outrages both whites and blacks. The promised escape to the North never materializes, and Herman dies in Julia's arms.

Wedding Band, subtitled A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, received mixed reviews. Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote [27 October 1972], "Indeed its strength lies very much in the poignancy of its star-cross'd lovers, but whereas Shakespeare's lovers had a fighting chance, there is no way that Julia and Herman are going to beat the system. Niggers and crackers are more irreconcilable than any Montagues and Capulets." In quite a different vein, Loften Mitchell [in The Crisis (April 1965)] commented, "Miss Childress writes with a sharp, satiric touch…. Characterizations are piercing, her observations devastating…. The play reaches a rousing climax when the Negro woman defines for a white woman exactly what the Negro has meant in terms of Southern lives."

Following Wedding Band, Childress wrote Wine in the Wilderness, which was aired on National Educational Television (NET) in 1969. Set in Harlem in 1960 during a race riot, this play pokes fun at bourgeois affectation and is one of the first plays about middle-class Negro life by a black woman playwright. Childress levels an attack at blacks who scream blackness, brotherhood, and togetherness but who have no love or empathy for poor, uneducated, and unrefined blacks. Tomorrow Marie, the dynamic heroine, is dragged in from the violence of the riots only to experience the emotional violence inherent in the discovery that her new associates think that she is the dregs of society, a poor black woman who is crass. Serving as a catalyst for the growth of Bill Jameson, Cynthia, and Sonny-Man, Tomorrow Marie calls them phoney niggers and teaches them the ugliness of their own superciliousness.

Wine in the Wilderness is Childress at her best. Hatch and Shine [in Black Theater USA: Forty-Five Plays by Black Americans, 1847–1974, 1974] note that, "The beauty of Wine in the Wilderness is in part due to the author's sensitive treatment 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."

Another play by Childress in which the heroine serves as a catalyst for growth is Mojo: A Black Love Story, produced at the New Harlem Theatre in 1970. Mojo is a domestic drama dealing with the misfortunes and misunderstandings of a poverty-stricken black couple who, though they love each other, have spent the bulk of their lives apart and hurting. Teddy's ex-wife, Irene, returns unexpectedly for emotional support as she readies herself for cancer surgery. Each recalls the mistakes of earlier days and comes to realize the strength fostered by uncovering past anger, wounds, and fears. Childress' perceptions are devastatingly accurate in this complex drama where people are pressured into causing each other pain because of financial exigency. The author skillfully, but without condoning or relieving the black couple of their past indiscretions, depicts two people who have survived rats, garbage, and minimum wages earned for cleaning toilets.

Unlike Childress' other plays, her historical dramas have not met with a great deal of success. Barbara Molette argues [in Black World (April 1976)], "It's not that black playwrights have not written historical plays; it's that we have a difficult time getting them produced." Like the early black women playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance, such as May Miller and Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alice Childress' historical heroines have remained silent. One case in point is Childress' When the Rattlesnake Sounds (1975), which has no record of a professional production. This children's play illustrates Harriet Tubman's commitment, strength, and fear during the days of the Underground Railroad. Childress' talent in this play has not gone unrecognized as critic Zena Sutherland comments [in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (May 1976)], "the play is moving because of its subject and impressive because of the deftness with which Childress develops characters and background in so brief and static a setting."

Alice Childress writes because she is compelled to tell the truth about black life in America. According to C. W. E. Bigsby, in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama [1985], "Childress' humanism is evident, and her resistance to ruling political and cultural orthodoxies apparent." She is a writer of great discipline, power, substance, wit, and integrity. A pioneer in the theater, Childress' steadfast efforts of forty years have substantially shaped black playwriting in America.