Childress's first play, Florence, a one-act play given her mother's name, was written in 1949 but not published until the following year in Masses & Mainstream (October 1950), a predominately communist magazine that published African American literature. Childress produced the first performance of Florence at the American Negro Theatre in New York City in 1949. The setting for the play is a segregated railroad station in which a black woman and a white woman wait for a train to take them to New York City. The play focuses on the corrosive effects of racism and stereotyping and how prevalent they were during this period. Childress uses realism to depict the prejudices that many white people had about African Americans. She also challenges ideas about what should constitute a suitable career for African American women. Florence's mother, who initially does not support her daughter's dream of becoming an actress in New York, changes her mind about her daughter's career when she is faced with the racial stereotypes put forth by a white woman. The white woman, Mrs. Carter, is so firmly entrenched in her own vision of the truth that she has no interest in learning that she is wrong. Childress's first play also reveals the difficulties that black actors face when trying to find work in the white-dominated theatrical world. Florence was first presented off Broadway by the American Negro Theatre. Childress directed and starred in this first production of the play. Florence is available in Wines in the Wilderness:
Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present (1990), edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
Alice Childress was born either October 12, 1916, or October 12, 1920, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her birth name might have been either Herndon or Henderson, and it is thought that her mother's name was Florence. While the facts surrounding her birth and parentage are in doubt, what is known is that as a small child she was taken to New York to be raised by her grandmother. Childress, who dropped out of high school after two years, was raised in Harlem in New York City by her grandmother, Eliza Campbell. Campbell had only an elementary school education, but she was an accomplished story-teller whose talent sparked in Childress an early interest in telling stories. Although her formal education ended early, after her grandmother's death in the early 1930s, Childress continued to educate herself during hours spent reading at the public library. She was married to Alvin Childress during the 1930s, with whom she had a daughter, Jean. Childress was very private about her personal life, so little is known about her relationships or her daughter, but it is known that the couple divorced after Alvin took an acting job on television and moved to Hollywood. Childress would later marry Nathan Woodard in 1957.
Childress had joined the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem when she was twenty, with an appearance in On Strivers's Row. Childress was an actress and director with ANT for ten years and appeared in some of their biggest hits, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, Natural Man, and Anna Lucasta. She wrote her first play, Florence, in 1949. This one-act play examines the prejudice of both white and black people and establishes the direction many of Childress's subsequent plays would take. She followed this early success with another play, Just A Little Simple (1950), an adaptation of the Langston Hughes novel, Simple Speaks His Mind. Childress's third play, written in 1952, Gold Through the Trees, became the first play by a black woman to be professionally produced on the American stage. Childress's next play, Trouble in Mind (1955), focused on a topic she knew well—the difficulties black women face as actresses. This play was very successful, and Childress became the first woman to win the Village Voice Obie Award, for the best original off-Broadway play of the 1955-1956 season. A revised edition of this play was published in Black Theatre: A Twentieth-Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights.
Childress next composed Wedding Band (1966) and Wine in the Wilderness. The latter was written for public television in 1969 and was the first play broadcast by WGBS Boston as part of the series "On Being Black." This was followed by another one-act play, String (1969), which was an adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant short story, "A Piece of String." Another one-act play, Mojo: A Black Love Story, followed in 1970.
Childress continued to write plays, including two for children—When the Rattlesnake Sounds (1975) and Let's Hear It for the Queen (1976). Childress also wrote several novels. The first, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life (1956), was based on conversations with black domestic workers. She also wrote several novels for young adults, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973), A Short Walk (1979), Rainbow Jordan (1981), and Those Other People (1989). Childress received several awards, including the first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1993, Childress received the Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Childress was working on a memoir about her great-grandmother, who was born a slave, when she died of cancer on August 14, 1994, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York.
Florence opens as a middle-aged black woman walks on stage and sits down on a bench on the "Colored" side of the railway station waiting room. A low railing separates the setting into a "White" waiting room and a "Colored" waiting room. A young black woman follows behind the older woman and immediately begins to chide the older woman about their early arrival. The younger woman is Marge, who tells her mother that she must force Florence, Marge's sister, to come back home because her son needs her. Mama and Marge also exchange some words about the rent, which is going to be late because the money is being used to try and bring Florence home. Marge reminds Mama to eat the lunch that was packed for her and buy coffee for her lunch before she boards the train, since black passengers are not permitted to enter the dining car. Before she leaves the station, Marge tells Mama that Florence must be forced to return home. Mama reminds Marge that Florence was in a play for two weeks, but Marge replies that her sister's role was as a maid, which only reinforces Marge's argument that there is no future for a black woman as an actress. After Marge leaves, the porter walks in and begins to mop the floor on the white side of the waiting room. He asks Mama if she is going on a trip. When Mama replies that she is going to New York to see Florence, the porter responds that his son in Atlanta saw Florence in a colored film. This is further evidence that Florence has had some success as an actress. The porter next warns Mama that if she needs to go the bathroom, she must use the colored men's bathroom, since the bathroom for colored women is out of order.
At that moment a well-dressed white woman, Mrs. Carter, comes rushing in and immediately begins to give the porter orders, addressing him as "Boy!" After being reassured that the porter will watch her bags, Mrs. Carter sits down on the white side of the waiting room. Mrs. Carter begins to speak to Mama and explains that after only two days in this small town, she is bored and eager to return home. She insults Mama by asking if she lives in the small town that has her "bored to tears." Mrs. Carter explains that she has only come south to cheer up her brother, whose most recent novel has earned such poor reviews that he has given up writing. When Mama explains that she has never heard of this novel, Mrs. Carter begins to explain the plot, which involves a light-skinned Negro woman who is smart and ambitious but who commits suicide because she is not white. Mrs. Carter explains that all blacks are filled with self-hate because they are not white. When Mama challenges this view of blacks, providing examples of light-skinned blacks who are quite happy and successful, Mrs. Carter abruptly stops the conversation and insists that the subject is too controversial to discuss with a black woman. Mrs. Carter seems genuinely distressed to have upset Mama and tries to reassure her that she is not a racist. She even claims to have "eaten with Negroes." When Mama begins to ignore Mrs. Carter, the white woman sits for a few minutes pretending to read a book, but soon enough she tries again to engage Mama in conversation. In response to Mama's explanation that she is going to New York City to see her daughter, Florence, who is performing on the stage, Mrs. Carter assumes that Florence is a singer, saying, "You people have such a gift" for spirituals. When Mrs. Carter learns that Florence is a dramatic actress, she begins to express pity for Florence, whom she thinks must be pathetically depressed over having chosen a career at which she cannot possibly succeed. Mrs. Carter is also an actress, and she has not had much success. She cannot conceive of the possibility that a black woman could have either talent or success.
When Mrs. Carter brags about all her contacts on the stage, Mama asks if there is any way that the woman can help Florence. Mrs. Carter is quick to say yes and explains that she can get Florence work with a woman who is a writer and director. Mama is excited until she learns that the work Mrs. Carter is proposing for Florence is as a domestic servant, cleaning house. At this point, Mama becomes so upset that she grasps Mrs. Carter by the arm, alarming the white woman, who suddenly understands that she has upset Mama but does not know how. Mama tells Mrs. Carter that she should go back over to the white side of the waiting room, and Mrs. Carter quickly retreats into the "White ladies" bathroom. Just then the porter enters to tell Mama that the train is almost at the station. Mama writes something on a piece of paper and puts the note and the check that she was carrying to pay for Florence's return ticket home from New York into an envelope. She asks the porter to mail the envelope for her and tells him that the note to Florence tells her to "keep trying." The play ends as Mama leaves the stage.
The porter has one foot in the white world and one foot in the black world. By virtue of his job, he moves across the color barrier and the Jim Crow laws that separate white from black. He tells Mama that the bathroom for black women is out of order and that she must use the bathroom for black men, since the law forbids her to use the bathroom for white women. His role is to maintain order, as defined by law, but there is never any doubt that he belongs on the black side of the line. While he is permitted to walk on the white side of the waiting room, he only does so to mop the floors, and when Mrs. Carter enters, she addresses him imperiously as "Boy!" This is clearly a derogatory address for a man who is described as being about fifty years old.
Mrs. Carter is a white woman. She sees herself as tolerant and liberal in her thinking, but her words define her as a racist. She refers to the porter, a man many years her senior, as "boy." Her examples of tolerance include having "eaten with Negros." Mrs. Carter worries about her brother, who is an unsuccessful novelist. He writes about a culture that he neither understands nor is capable of experiencing, which may be why his books do not sell. Mrs. Carter fails to understand that merely observing a different world does not make the observer an authority. Mama tries to explain that the story Mrs. Carter's brother is telling is not true, but Mrs. Carter rejects this explanation. Mrs. Carter cannot accept that a black woman could know more than her white brother. Mrs. Carter's offer to find Florence a position as a domestic reflects her conviction that if a white woman cannot succeed as an actress, a black woman certainly cannot succeed. Mrs. Carter has no interest in hearing the truth and is blind to her own racism. The depth of her racist ideology is further seen in that the job she presumes is most appropriate for a young black woman is that of a domestic servant. Mrs. Carter genuinely believes that she is doing a good deed in arranging for a black woman to work as a servant. She understands the laws that separate black and white people and is unwilling to challenge those laws.
Although Florence never appears in the play, she is the focus of Mama's journey and the reason Mama is sitting in the train station. Florence is a young widow who moved to New York to try and find success as an actress. Although she has not yet achieved stardom, Florence has achieved some small successes on the stage, a fact that encourages her to remain in New York, but she continues to need her mother's financial assistance to survive. Mama explains to the audience that Florence has not felt right about living in the South since her husband was murdered when he tried to vote. Because her husband died while trying to fight injustice, Florence feels she cannot accept the discrimination that black people have been forced to endure for so long. Florence knows that it is only by challenging oppression that black Americans will be able to have the same opportunities as white Americans. Florence is more courageous than her sister Marge and is willing to take risks that her sister will not take.
Mama is on her way to New York City to bring her daughter Florence home. She is a strong black woman who is not intimidated either by her daughter Marge or by the white woman, Mrs. Carter. When they first arrive at the railway station, Marge speaks to her mother as if she is so naïve and inexperienced that she cannot be trusted to travel by herself to New York. Ironically, Mama tolerates all this mothering from Marge because Marge is her daughter, but Mama grows less patient with every new warning and bit of advice. She finally complains that Marge is treating her like she is "a northern greenhorn." Mama remains polite, but her responses to Marge suggest that she is ready for her daughter to return home, which is exactly what Mama encourages Marge to do. Mama is also polite to Mrs. Carter, even though the woman is insulting and racially insensitive. Only in her conversation with the porter does Mama appear to relax. Their conversation is natural and easy. If Mama seems only slightly impatient with Marge, she is less reticent when confronted with Mrs. Carter's racism. Mama is brave enough to contradict the stereotypes that Mrs. …