Childress, Alice 1920–1994
Alice Childress 1920–1994
Actress, playwright, novelist
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Alice Childress, who died of cancer in Queens, New York, on August, 14, 1994, was a pioneering black actress, playwright, and novelist who paved the way for other African-American playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry and Amiri Baraka. Her own plays and books, some of which were made into films and television movies, were well-known for their unflinching honesty about racism and its effects, especially concerning topics like miscegenation and teenage drug abuse. Because of the power of her work, one of her controversial plays was not carried on eight television stations and one of her books was banned from schools and libraries in several areas. In spite of her uncompromising themes, Childress has been called a great humanist.
Part of her humanism came from using her own experiences to portray common everyday people in her works. “I 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,” she told Children’s Literature Review. “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.”
Born into an impoverished family with little schooling on October 12, 1920, Childress spent her earliest years in Charleston, South Carolina, before being taken to live in Harlem, New York. She was raised by her grandmother, Eliza Campbell, the daughter of a slave, who encouraged her to write. As Childress stated in an interview in 1987, quoted in Black Literature Criticism, her 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 the end of our game, my grandmother would say to me, ’Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep.’”
Childress attended grade school but did not finish high school. After hearing Shakespeare read she began acting and directing in the American Negro Theatre in Harlem in 1941, while also working at several jobs. She
At a Glance…
Born on Oct. 12, 1920, in Charleston, SC; died of cancer, Aug. 14, ’94, in Queens, NY; married second husband Nathan Woodard (a musician), July 17 1957; children (first marriage) Jean (Mrs. Richard Lee). Education: Attended N.Y. public schools.
Wrote plays, novels, acted & directed in the Amer. Negro Theatre, N.Y.C., for 11 years starting in ’41,performed in Midsummer-Night’s Dream, On Striv-ers Row, & Natural Man; in opening cast of Anna Lucasta on Broadway; wrote Florence; other plays for adults & children, including Just a Little Simple, Gold Through the Trees, Trouble in Mind, Wedding Band, Wine in the Wilderness, Mojo, String, When the Rattlesnake Sounds, Let’s Hear it for the Queen, Sea Island Song, & Moms; wrote books for children & adults including A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, Rainbow Jordan, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, & A Short Walk; wrote column, “Here’s Mildred”, for Baltimore Afro-American, ’56-58; visiting scholar at Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (now the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute), Cambridge, MA, ’66-68.
Selected awards; Obie Award for, for Trouble in Mind, 1956; A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich named one of the Outstanding Books of the Year by N.Y. Times Book Review, ’73. for opening of Wedding Band; Sojourner Truth Award, Nati. Assn. of Negro Business & Prof. Women’s Clubs, ’75; Virgin Islands film festival award for best screenplay,’77, for A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich; first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, ’77, for A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich; “Alice Childress Week” officially observed in Charleston & Columbia, SC, ’77; Rainbow Jordan was named one of the “Best Books* by School Library Journal, ’81, one of the Outstanding Books of the Year by NY Times, ’82; Audelco Pioneer award, ’86; Harlem School of the Arts Humanitarian Award; Lifetime Achievement Award, Assn.for Theatre in Higher Educ, ’93.
Member: PEN; Dramatists Guild); Amen Fed. of TV& Radio Artists; Writers Guild of Amer. East ; Harlem Writers Guild.
stayed with the American Negro Theatre for eleven years, where she performed in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Strivers Row, and Natural Man. She also played in the opening cast of the Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. Other actors also appearing in the show included Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier.
In 1949 she wrote her first play, Florence, which involves a discussion between a white and a black woman in a segregated train station. The black woman’s daughter is attempting to become an actress in New York. When the black woman asks for her help, the white woman offers to ask a friend of hers, a stage director, to hire the daughter as a maid, thus bringing out the racism she earlier denied she had. Though Florence was a small production, it drew praise and launched Childress’s career.
In 1950 Childress turned a Langston Hughes novel called Simple Speaks His Mind into a play titled Just a Little Simple, which was presented at the Club Baron Theatre in Harlem. Next, she wrote Gold Through the Trees, which in 1952 was the first play by a black woman to be produced on stage in America. Because both plays were successful, Childress brought Harlem’s first all-union off-Broadway contracts into practice. They acknowledged the Actors Equity Association and the Harlem Stage Hand Local.
Her play Trouble in Mind was produced in 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York City. The play showed how black actors often endured racial prejudice from callous white directors and producers. In it, a troupe of black and white actors rehearsing for a play involving a lynching are forced to question their roles when a black actor refuses to accept the motivation of her character. In one version of the play she leads a walk-out over it and the director corrects and improves the script; in another the audience is left wondering whether the actors all lost their parts.
Trouble won an Obie Award in 1956 for the best original off-Broadway play, and Childress was the first woman to win the award. Of it Sally Sommer of the Village Voice observed, “The plot is about an emerging rebellion begun as the heroine... refuses to enact a namby-Mammy, either in the play or for her director.” Arthur Gelb commented in the New York Times, [Childress] “has some witty and penetrating things to say about the dearth of roles for [black] actors in the contemporary theatre, the cutthroat competition for these parts and the fact that [black] actors often find themselves playing stereotyped roles in which they cannot bring themselves to believe.... This is an original play, full of vitality....”
On July 17, 1957 Childress married for the second time to Nathan Woodard, a musician who has composed music for her theatrical pieces. No information is given about her first husband. Her first marriage produced one daughter, Jean.
One of Childress’s most controversial plays, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, produced in 1966 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told the story of a common-law and at the time illegal marriage of a white baker and a black seamstress in South Carolina during World War I. Because he can not put it on her finger, the baker gives the seamstress a wedding band to wear on a chain around her neck. In the play racism surfaces in all the characters who come into contact with the couple. Although it was supposed to be staged on Broadway it never was. It was not until 1972 that it appeared as a Joseph Papp production at the New York Public Theatre. A year later it was televised on ABC as a New York Shakespeare Festival production and appeared on 168 television stations, though eight local ones refused to broadcast it. In the New York Times Clive Barnes wrote, “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 [these two] are going to beat the system.” In the Crisis, Loften Mitchell wrote, “Miss Childress writes with a sharp, satiric touch... Characterizations are piercing, her observations devastating.... ”
Childress sometimes was criticized for making speeches in her plays. Of Trouble in Mind Doris Abramson stated in Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925-1959, “A reader of the script is very much aware of the author pulling strings, putting her own words into a number of mouths.” In the New Yorker Edith Oliver observed, “The first act [of ’Wedding Band’] is splendid, but after that we hit a few jarring notes, when the characters seem to be speaking as much for the benefit of us eavesdroppers out front ... as for the benefit of one another.”
After writing Wine in the Wilderness, her commentary on the black revolution and the black woman produced by WGBH-TV; Mojo, about a formerly married couple forced to acknowledge their love for each other; and String, an adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant tale, Childress turned towards writing plays for children, among them When the Rattlesnake Sounds and Let’s Hear it for the Queen.
She also began writing fiction, and her best-known and most disputatious children’s book, A Hero Ain ’t Noth-in’ but a Sandwich, was published in 1973. Hero tells the story of Benjie, a thirteen-year-old Harlem heroin addict, and the tale is not only told from his point of view but from the viewpoints of his family, teachers, even his pusher. The book was banned in several school libraries, then reinstated in all but one by court order in 1983. It was one of nine to reach the Supreme Court in a book banning case, even though it received numerous national awards, including being named one of the Outstanding Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review.
In the Washington Post Sada Fretz commented, [The book] tackles the grim topic of teenage addiction head on and contrives no happy ending, but her strong novel is so charged with vitality, personality and tension that it is anything but defeatist....[It is written in] a tough, trenchant Harlem idiom and through the viewpoints of a number of brilliantly delineated people around Benjie....” The book, for which she wrote the screenplay, was later made into a movie starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. In 1977 it received the Best Screenplay Award at the Virgin Islands Film festival.
In 1981 Childress wrote another adolescent novel, Rainbow Jordan, about a fourteen-year-old girl who is perpetually left at home while her go-go dancer mother travels around in search of shows to perform in. Wrote Anne Tyler in the New York Times Book Review, “Rainbow’s story moves us not because of the random beatings [she receives] or financial hardships, but because Rainbow needs her mother so desperately that she will endlessly rationalize, condone, overlook, forgive. She is a heartbreakingly sturdy character....” Like Hero, this story is told by many characters in their own dialect and raises questions about the effects of racism and being poor, accepting affection from parents, getting used to loss and solitude, and learning to believe in oneself. Childress’s other books for adults have included, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life and A Short Walk.
In 1987 Childress switched back to playwrighting with the show, Moms, which was presented at New York’s Hudson Guild. A tribute to the black actor and comedian Jackie (Moms) Mabley (1894-1975) the production garnered favorable reviews. Moms Mabley was famous, among other things, for her crushed hat, loosely hanging dresses, and sagging socks, which drew laughs. In the New Yorker Edith Oliver remarked that Childress’s version was “very funny” and “written with considerable tact, with just enough story to keep things moving and varied and to display the best of Moms’ wares.”
About her writing method Childress once told Contemporary Authors, “Books, plays, teleplays, motion picture scenarios, etc., I seem caught up in a fragmentation of writing skills. But an idea comes to me in a certain form and, if it stays with me, [it] must be written out or put in outline form before I can move on to the next event. I sometimes wonder about writing in different forms; could it be that women are used to dealing with the bits and pieces of life and do not feel as [compelled to specialize]? The play form is the one most familiar to me and so influences all my writing-I think in scenes.”
During her life, Childress was a member of professional organizations and groups, including PEN, the Harlem Writers Guild, and the Dramatists Guild. She also lectured at colleges and universities, among them the Radcliffe Institute for Independent study in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Fisk University. Childress received the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame award in 1977, the first Paul Robeson award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts in 1980, and the Audelco Pioneer award in 1986.
Florence, (one-act) produced at American Negro Theatre, New York City, 1949.
Just a Little Simple [adaptor; from the work Simple Speaks His Mind by Langston Hughes] produced at Club Baron Theatre, New York City, 1950.
Gold Through the Trees, produced at Club Baron Theatre, 1952.
Trouble in Mind, produced at Greenwich Mews Theatre, New York City, 1955; revised version published in Black Theatre: A Twentieth-Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights, edited by Lindsay Patterson, Dodd, 1971.
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, produced at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1966; presented again at New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre, 1972, and as an ABC-TV screenplay in 1973.
The Freedom Drum, 1969; also performed at Performing Arts Repertory Theatre as Young Man Martin Luther King, 1969-1971.
String [adaptor (one-act); from the story “A Piece of String” by Guy de Maupassant] produced at St. Mark’s Playhouse, New York City, 1969.
Wine in the Wilderness: A Comedy-Drama, produced by WGBH-TV Boston, 1969.
Mojo: A Black Love Story, (one-act) New Heritage Theatre, New York City, 1970.
When the Rattlesnake Sounds: A Play (juvenile) Coward (London), 1975.
Let’s Hear it for the Queen: A Play (juvenile) Coward, 1976.
Sea Island Song, Produced in Charleston, SC, 1977; presented again as Gullah at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, 1984.
Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (music and lyrics by Childress and her husband, Nathan Woodard) produced by Green Playsat Art Awareness, 1986; then at Hudson Guild Theatre, New York City, 1987.
Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, Independence Publishers 1956; reprinted by Beacon Press, 1986. Coward (London) 1973.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’but a Sandwich, Coward, 1973.
A Short Walk, Coward, 1979.
Rainbow Jordan, Coward, 1981.
Many Closets, Coward, 1987.
Those Other People, Putnam, 1989.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992, pp. 401-413.
Children’s Literature Review, Gale, Volume 14, 1988, pp. 85-94.
Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, Volume 27, Gale, 1989, pp. 100-103; Volume 50, 1995, pp. 57-79.
Contemporary Dramatists, edited by K.A. Barney, St. James Press, 1993, pp. 97-98.
Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Volume 7, Gale, 1981, pp. 118-124.
Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Volume 38, Gale, 1985, pp. 66-79.
Drama Criticism, Volume 4, Gale, 1994, pp. 64-78.
Jordan, Shirley M., editor, Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and White Writers, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 29-37.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992, pp. 181-183.
Who’s Who in America, Marquis, 1992-93, p. 596.
Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1994, Sec. A, p. 20.
New York Times, February 10, 1987, Sec. C, p. 16; August 18, 1987, Sec. C, p. 13; October 22, 1987, Sec. C, p. 17; August 19, 1994, Sec. A, p. 24.
Time, August 20, 1994, p.25.
Washington Post, August 19, 1994, Sec. B, p. 4.
—Alison Carb Sussman
"Childress, Alice 1920–1994." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/childress-alice-1920-1994
"Childress, Alice 1920–1994." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/childress-alice-1920-1994
Alice Childress (1920-1994) is an author whose writing is characterized by its frank treatment of racial issues. Because her books and plays often deal with such subjects as miscegenation and teenage drug addiction, her work can be controversial.
Alice Childress's work is noted for its frank treatment of racial issues, its compassionate yet discerning characterizations, and its universal appeal. Because her books and plays often deal with such controversial subjects as miscegenation and teenage drug addiction, her work has been banned in certain locations. She recalls that some affiliate stations refused to carry the nationally televised broadcasts of Wedding Band and Wine in the Wilderness, and in the case of the latter play, the entire state of Alabama banned the telecast.
Childress notes in addition that as late as 1973 her young adult novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich "was the first book banned in a Savannah, Georgia school library since Catcher in the Rye, which the same school banned in the fifties." Along with other contemporary and classical works, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich has been at the center of legal battles and court decisions over attempts to define obscenity and its alleged impact on readers. Among the most famous cases was Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (102 S. Ct. 2799) in which a Stephen Pico, then a high school student, and others sued the Board on the grounds that their First Amendment Rights had been denied. The case became the first ever of this type to be heard in the U.S Supreme Court. Justice Brennan found for the plaintiffs, having determined that a school board's rights were limited to supervising curriculum, but not the general content of a library. Despite special-interest groups' growing resistance to controversial subjects in books, Childress's writing continues to win praise and respect for being, as a Variety reviewer terms, "powerful and poetic."
A talented writer and performer in several media, Childress has commented about the variety of genres in which she writes: "Books, plays, tele-plays, motion picture scenarios, etc., I seem caught up in a fragmentation of writing skills. But an idea comes to me in a certain form and, if it stays with me, must be written out or put in outline form before I can move on to the next event. I sometimes wonder about writing in different forms; could it be that women are used to dealing with the bits and pieces of life and do not feel as [compelled to specialize]? The play form is the one most familiar to me and so influences all of my writing—I think in scenes."
In an autobiographical sketch for Donald R. Gallo's Speaking for Ourselves, Childress shares how theater has influenced her fiction writing: "When I'm writing, characters seem to come alive; they move my pen to action, pushing, pulling, shoving, and intruding. I visualize each scene as if it were part of a living play…. I am pleased when readers say that my novels feel like plays, because it means they are very visual."
Alice Childress began her career in the theater, initially as an actress and later as a director and playwright. Although "theater histories make only passing mention of her, … she was in the forefront of important developments in that medium," writes Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Trudier Harris. Rosemary Curb points out in another Dictionary of Literary Biography article that Childress's 1952 drama Gold through the Trees was "the first play by a black woman professionally produced on the American stage." Moreover, Curb adds, "As a result of successful performances of [her 1950s plays Just a Little Simple and Gold through the Trees], Childress initiated Harlem's first all-union Off-Broadway contracts recognizing the Actors Equity Association and the Harlem Stage Hand Local."
Partly because of her pioneering efforts, Childress is considered a crusader by many. But she is also known as "a writer who resists compromise," says Doris E. Abramson in Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925-1959. "She tries to write about [black] problems as honestly as she can." The problems Childress addresses most often are racism and its effects. Her Trouble in Mind, for example, is a play within a play that focuses on the anger and frustration experienced by a troupe of black actors as they try to perform stereotyped roles in a play that has been written, produced, and directed by whites. As Sally R. Sommer explains in the Village Voice, "The plot is about an emerging rebellion begun as the heroine, Wiletta, refuses to enact a namby-Mammy, either in the play or for her director." In the New York Times, Arthur Gelb states that Childress "has some witty and penetrating things to say about the dearth of roles for [black] actors in the contemporary theatre, the cutthroat competition for these parts and the fact that [black] actors often find themselves playing stereotyped roles in which they cannot bring themselves to believe." And of Wedding Band, a play about an interracial relationship that takes place in South Carolina during World War I, Clive Barnes writes in the New York Times, "Childress very carefully suggests the stirrings of black consciousness, as well as the strength of white bigotry."
Critics Sommer and the New York Times's Richard Eder find that Childress's treatment of the themes and issues in Trouble in Mind and Wedding Band gives these plays a timeless quality. "Writing in 1955, … Alice Childress used the concentric circles of the play-within-the-play to examine the multiple roles blacks enact in order to survive," Sommer remarks. She finds that viewing Trouble in Mind years later enables one to see "its double cutting edge: It predicts not only the course of social history but the course of black playwriting." Eder states: "The question [in Wedding Band] is whether race is a category of humanity or a division of it. The question is old by now, and was in 1965, [when the play was written,] but it takes the freshness of new life in the marvelous characters that Miss Childress has created to ask it."
The strength and insight of Childress's characterizations have been widely acknowledged; critics contend that the characters who populate her plays and novels are believable and memorable. Eder praises the "rich and lively characterization" of Wedding Band. Similarly impressed, Harold Clurman writes in the Nation that "there is an honest pathos in the telling of this simple story, and some humorous and touching thumbnail sketches reveal knowledge and understanding of the people dealt with." In the novel A Short Walk, Childress chronicles the life of a fictitious black woman, Cora James, from her birth in 1900 to her death in the middle of the century, illustrating, as Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan describes it, "a transitional generation in black American society." McLellan notes that the story "wanders considerably" and that "the reader is left with no firm conclusion that can be put into a neat sentence or two." What is more important, he asserts, is that "the wandering has been through some interesting scenery, and instead of a conclusion the reader has come to know a human being complex, struggling valiantly and totally believable." And of Childress's novel about teenage heroin addiction, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, the Lion and the Unicorn's Miguel Ortiz states, "The portrait of whites is more realistic in this book, more compassionate, and at the same time, because it is believable, more scathing."
Some criticism has been leveled at what such reviewers as Abramson and Edith Oliver believe to be Childress's tendency to speechify, especially in her plays. "A reader of the script is very much aware of the author pulling strings, putting her own words into a number of mouths," Abramson says of Trouble in Mind. According to Oliver in the New Yorker, "The first act [of Wedding Band] is splendid, but after that we hit a few jarring notes, when the characters seem to be speaking as much for the benefit of us eavesdroppers out front … as for the benefit of one another."
For the most part, however, Childress's work, particularly her novels for young adults, has been acclaimed for its honesty, insight, and compassion. When one such novel, Those Other People, was published in 1989, it was acknowledged by very few of the traditional children's reviewing sources. The novel deals with a teenage boy's fears about admitting to his homosexuality. Childress has created characters who confront homophobia, racism, and social taboos honestly and with dignity. In her review for School Library Journal, Kathryn Havris notes that Those Other People, skillfully and realistically addresses young people's responses to these problems. This author, says Havris, "has presented the problems and reactions with a competence that deserves reading."
In Crisis, Loften Mitchell notes: "Childress writes with a sharp, satiric touch. Character seems to interest her more than plot. Her characterizations are piercing, her observations devastating." In his review of A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, Ortiz writes: "The book conveys very strongly the message that we are all human, even when we are acting in ways that we are somewhat ashamed of. The structure of the book grows out of the personalities of the characters, and the author makes us aware of how much the economic and social circumstances dictate a character's actions."
In discussing how she came to write books for teenagers, Childress remarks in Speaking for Ourselves that she wanted to "deal with characters who feel rejected and have to painfully learn how to deal with other people, because I believe all human beings can be magnificent once they realize their full importance." "My young years were very old in feeling," she comments elsewhere. "I was shut out of so much for so long. [I] soon began to embrace the low-profile as a way of life, which helped me to develop as a writer. Quiet living is restful when one's writing is labeled 'controversial.'
"Happily, I managed to save a bit of my youth for spending in these later years. Oh yes, there are other things to be saved [besides] money. If we hang on to that part within that was once childhood, I believe we enter into a new time dimension and every day becomes another lifetime in itself. This gift of understanding is often given to those wh constantly battle against the negatives of life with determination."
Childress died on August 14, 1994 in New York City. At the time of her death she had been at work on a novel about her African great-grandmother, who'd been a slave in her childhood, and her Scotch-Irish great-grandmother.
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Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilson, Literature for Today's Young Adults, Scott, Foresman, 1980, third edition, Harper Collins, 1989.
Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday-Anchor, 1984.
Gallo, Donald R., editor, Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults, National Council Teachers of English, 1990.
Hatch, James V., Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans, Free Press, 1974.
Mitchell, Loften, editor, Voices of the Black Theatre, James White, 1975.
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Wilson Library Bulletin, September, 1989, pp. 14-15. □
"Alice Childress." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alice-childress
"Alice Childress." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alice-childress