Childress, Alice Herndon

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Childress, Alice Herndon

(b. 12 October 1916 in Charleston, South Carolina; d. 14 August 1994 in New York City), novelist and the first African-American woman playwright to have her work professionally produced.

In 1925, after the separation of her parents, Alonzo and Florence White Herndon, Childress was sent from Charleston to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City to be raised by her maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell White. She attended New York’s Public School 81, Julia Ward Howe Junior High School, and Wadleigh High School (she did not graduate). Her grandmother encouraged her to write, telling her that her thoughts were “worth keeping,” but Childress credited a public school teacher for specifically encouraging her interest in drama during her formative years. She married Alvin Childress (who played Amos in Amos ’n Andy) in her late teens and in November 1935 gave birth to her only child, a daughter. She wrote an unpublished play, Hell’s Alley, with her husband in 1938, but it was several years before she turned to writing full-time.

In 1940 she became a member of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), a pioneering black theater company founded in Harlem, where her colleagues included Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier. Childress recalled that although her primary role with the company was as an actor, she also painted scenery, coached other actors, and assisted directors. As an actor, her roles included Polly Ann in Natural Man by Theodore Browne and her Tony-nominated role as Blanche in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta (which moved to Broadway’s Mansfield Theatre on 30 August 1944 and ran for 957 performances).

Childress’s first play, a one-act titled Florence, was produced by ANT in 1949 with Childress as the director and star. In 1950 Childress opened her own theater with Paul Robeson, but the venture was short-lived. That same year she wrote a musical revue adaptation of Langston Hughes’s satirical short-story collection Simple Speaks His Mind. Titled Just a Little Simple, the show ran for two months at the Club Baron Theatre in Harlem. Childress’s female counterpart to Hughes’s Jesse B. Simple was an insightful New York domestic named Mildred. The column “Here’s Mildred,” serialized in the Baltimore Afro-American, culminated in a published book, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life (1956).

On 7 April 1952 Gold Through the Trees was produced at the Club Baron in Harlem by the Committee for the Negro in the Arts/Council on the Harlem Theatre; this musical revue was the first play written by a black woman to be professionally produced on the American stage. Childress’s first full-length play, Trouble in Mind, opened on 4 November 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre. She had been obliged to change the play’s ending when her producer threatened cancellation if the play did not end happily, but she insisted that the original ending be published in the anthology Black Theatre, edited by Lindsay Patterson in 1957.

Childress was active in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. She also acted, notably as Mrs. Thurston in The Cool World on Broadway (1960). Some time after divorcing her first husband, she married the musician Nathan Woodard on 17 July 1957.

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, with a cast that included Ruby Dee, Abbey Lincoln, Moses Gunn, and Clarice Taylor, opened in December 1966 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. A Chicago production in 1971 drew black audiences for a sold-out six-week run. On 26 November 1972, Wedding Band opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater with Ruby Dee and James Broderick in the leading roles. Childress directed this production through previews, before Joseph Papp took over as director. In 1973 the Public Theater’s production was televised nationally during prime time by ABC, but many affiliates refused to broadcast the depiction of an interracial relationship. Wedding Band gave voice to a black woman’s experience of antimiscegenation laws and, like all of Childress’s work, subverted images of working-class black complacency.

Rejuvenated by a two-year residency at Radcliffe College (1966–1968) as a playwright and scholar, in 1968 Childress staged a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., The Freedom Drum (later retitled Young Martin Luther King, Jr.), with music by her husband. While this Performing Arts Repertory Theatre production was touring, she produced three one-act plays on interracial themes between 1969 and 1970: Wine in the Wilderness, String, and Mojo: A Blacky Love Story. Childress wrote Wine in the Wilderness and Mojo as a means of commenting upon the growing classism and sexism developing in tangent with the politicization of the black community and also in response to the need for love scenes for black actors. In her 1971 anthology Black Scenes (1971), Childress demonstrated her interest in combining a breadth of useful working material for the black stage with historical depth, for instance by including a piece by Theodore Ward, who was at that time the oldest living black playwright in America.

In 1973 Childress published the young adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, the story of a thirteen-year-old inner-city boy addicted to drugs. She was thrown into the spotlight when the Board of Education for the Island Trees Union Free School District in New York banned Hero, along with nine other books from school libraries; the ban was eventually rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Hero went on to win the American Library Association’s award for the best young adult book of 1975 and was nominated for the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. Childress also wrote the screenplay for a 1978 film adaptation of the book starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Around the same time, Childress wrote two children’s plays—When the Rattlesnake Sounds (1975) and Let’s Hear It for the Queen (1976).

In 1977 Childress teamed up with her musician husband to write a play commissioned by the South Carolina Commission for the Arts in celebration of “Alice Childress Week.” Sea Island Song toured through public schools in Charleston and Columbia for a week in October 1977. In subsequent years Childress wrote two more works of adolescent fiction—Rainbow Jordan (1981) and Those Other People (1989)—and one adult novel (A Short Walk, 1979). Her last play, Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (1986), was a tribute to Jackie “Moms” Mabley (Loretta Mary Aiken). Childress died of cancer in New York City at the age of seventy-seven.

Childress once said that artistically she focused “on portraying have-nots in a have society, those seldom singled out by mass media, except as source material for derogatory humor and condescending clinical social analysis.” A pivotal dramatist bridging the Harlem Renaissance and the post—civil rights era, Childress was tenacious in representing ordinary people’s struggles.

Childress’s manuscripts are collected at the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Hatch-Billops Collection in New York holds an extensive 1972 interview. The most complete biographical source is La Vinia Delois Jennings, Alice Childress (1995). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post (all 19 Aug. 1994) and the Chicago Tribune (21 Aug. 1994).

Tina Redd

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Childress, Alice Herndon

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