Granddaughter of Eliza Campbell; married (second) NathanWoodard, 1957; children: Jean
Alice Childress moved north to Harlem at the age of five to be raised by her dynamic grandmother, Eliza Campbell. She deems her grandmother's influence immeasurable for exposing her at an early age to New York's cultural and artistic offerings. Campbell would take Childress to art galleries and private showings and, according to Childress, say "Now this is my granddaughter and we don't have any money, but I want her to know about art. If you aren't too busy, could you show us around?" Afterwards, her grandmother would quiz her about what she had learned. These initial experiences helped form a love for art Childress was able to translate into her own literary and dramatic career. After finishing only two years of high school, her beloved grandmother died, and Childress was forced to leave school to begin supporting herself as an actress. By 1941 she had joined the American Negro Theatre in Harlem and was on her way to becoming not only an accomplished actress but in time a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, director, and a crusader for striving artists.
Childress was married briefly in 1940 and had one daughter. While struggling to support herself and her daughter on an actress's wages, she also worked as a domestic and in other low-paying jobs. Her experiences during this period shaped her career-long interest in portraying working class African American women caught in oppressive situations, yet maintaining their dignity. Her 1956 book, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life uses selections and inspirations from her "Here's Mildred" column, which ran in the Baltimore Afro-American from 1956-58, to explore these working class issues and successfully used satire to underscore the realities of the black domestic worker's life.
Although Childress has written plays, novels, young adult fiction, television scripts, and a screenplay, she is best known as a dramatist. While working with the American Negro Theatre, she began to write for the company because, in her words, "We needed things. We needed good writing." Her first play, Florence (1949), (which she wrote in one night) draws on her early acting years and the stereotyping of African Americans. Like most of her subsequent plays, it revolves around black female protagonists struggling in a contradictory, often racist environment. (The play is set at a segregated train station). In a 1967 essay Childress described her characteristic and memorable heroines as "created and constructed on what hurts and what heals, slowly built and put in order out of the conflict which comes from the daily search for bread, love, and a place in the sun." Consistently, Childress' black women characters possess a depth and sensitivity rarely granted to black subjects in American theater.
Childress' second play, Just a Little Simple (1950), was based on stories by Langston Hughes. Gold Through Trees (1952), her third play, was the first play by an African American woman to have a professional production, meaning it was performed by equity actors. Childress' 1955 play, Trouble in Mind, ran for 91 performances and won an Obie Award, the first presented to a woman playwright. The play also draws on her acting career, showing black actors resisting stereotypical portrayals of black characters. One critic says of Trouble in Mind that "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." But on being lauded as the first woman—and first African American woman—to receive the honors she did, Childress says "I never was ever interested in being the first woman to do anything. I always felt that I should be the 50th or 100th," and explains how being the first means so many women before her of talent and importance were regretfully and unalterably shut out.
In the 1960s Childress challenged convention with Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, focusing on an interracial relationship between a black man and a white woman in South Carolina in 1918. Initial attempts to mount a production met with resistance; the first production took place at the University of Michigan in 1966. In 1973 the play was adapted for television, but a number of stations refused to carry the broadcast. Also facing widespread censorship, her comedy-drama contradicting image and role stereotypes, Wine in the Wilderness (1969), appeared as part of a television series, "On Being Black." The entire state of Alabama banned this telecast.
Aware of the tradition of African American drama that had long produced plays in schools, churches, and in community centers across the country, Childress sought to bring this tradition to the forefront of the American theater. In addition to her work as a playwright, she has also been an active supporter of her fellow artists. During the 1950s, her crusades in the Dramatists Guild led to union contracts for black performers and stagehands.
Since the 1970s Childress wrote and produced works specifically for young adults. Ferdinand Monjo, editor and author of children's books, suggested Childress write her first young adult book on the timely subject of drug use. The result, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1973), was a novel about a black thirteen-year-old heroine user that met acclaim as well as censorship. The novel was nominated for a 1974 National Book Award and named a Notable Book by the American Library Association, as well as banned in the Savannah, Georgia school library (the first since Catcher in the Rye). A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich propelled Childress into the role of screenwriter for the 1977 film featuring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Childress' later work includes another controversial young adult novel Those Other People (1989). This novel is told from several outsider's points of view and addresses difficult issues including sexual abuse, homosexuality, and suicide. Called by one critic "a penetrating examination of bigotry and racism," another critic claims this to be "a disturbing, disquieting novel that reflects another side of life."
With her husband, composer Nathan Woodward, Childress has written two plays focusing on the Gullah-speaking people who live off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, Sea Island Song (produced 1979) and Gullah (produced 1984). Moms, based on the life of blues singer and humorist Moms Mabley, appeared in 1986. Childress has received numerous acknowledgments for her contributions to American theater. In 1965 she appeared with James Baldwin, Leroi Jones (Imiri Baraka), and Langston Hughes on a British Broadcasting Corporation panel discussion on "The Negro in the American Theatre." She received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1967 and from 1966-68 was a fellow at the Radcliffe (College) Institute for Independent Study. In 1984 she received the Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal; in 1986 she received the Audelco Pioneer Award; and before her death from cancer in 1994, she received the 1993 Association for Theatre in Higher Education Lifetime Achievement Award.
String (1969). The Freedom Drum (1970). Mojo: A Black Love Story (1970). Mojo and String: Two Plays (1971). Black Scenes (editor, 1973). A Short Walk (1979). Rainbow Jordan (1981). Many Closets (1987).
Brown-Guillory, E., Their Place on the Stage: Black Playwrights in America (1988). Keyssar, H., Feminist Theater (1984). Patterson, L., ed., Anthology of the American Negro in the Theatre: A Critical Approach (1968).
Black American Writers Past and Present (1975). Black American Playwrights (1976). Black Playwrights (1978). Black Writers (1989). Children's Books and Their Creators (1995). CA (1974, 1999). CANR (1981, 1989). CLC (1980, 1997). FC (1990). MTCW (1991). More Black Playwrights (1978). Notable Women in American Theater (1989). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). SATA (1975, 1995).
Freedomways (Winter 1966). Sage (Spring 1987). Southern Quarterly (Spring 1987).
UPDATED BY JULIET BYINGTON