Childress, Alice (1916–1994)

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Childress, Alice (1916–1994)

African-American actress and playwright. Born Alice Herndon Childress on October 12, 1916, in Charleston, South Carolina; died on August 14, 1994, in Astoria, Queens, New York; daughter of Florence Childress; educated at Wadleigh High School, New York, and Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (1968); married Nathan Woodard (a musician), on July 17, 1957; children: Jean R. Childress (1935–1990).

Selected works:

Florence (play, 1949); Gold through the Trees (1952); Trouble in Mind (play, 1955); Like One of the Family … Conversations from a Domestic's Life (1956); A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973); Rainbow Jordan (1981); Gullah (play, 1984).

Eliza Campbell White , the daughter of an African slave freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, taught her granddaughter Alice Childress to approach her life as an education. Childress moved with her mother from Charleston, South Carolina, to her grandmother's home in Harlem, New York, in 1921. There, she went to public school intermittently, studied the people, and frequented the museums and libraries of New York. Childress was encouraged by her mother to make up stories about the people she watched and to study the behavior and culture of New York City's melting pot.

Both her mother and grandmother died when she was a teenager, and Childress was forced to quit Wadleigh High as a sophomore to support herself. At age 19, she gave birth to a baby daughter, Jean. With no one else to care for the child, Childress brought Jean with her to work at jobs including those of a machinist, photo retoucher, domestic, salesperson, and insurance agent.

Childress loved the theater, and made her acting debut in 1940. The following year, she joined the American Negro Theater (ANT). ANT required of members a commitment of four nights a week of work performed on a volunteer basis. Childress acted, did set construction and make-up, directed, and eventually began contributing scripts. In 1944, she received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Blanche in Anna Lucasta. In 1949, her first play, Florence, was staged. Written literally overnight, the play was fueled by Childress' frustration at a paucity of parts for black women and became the first of her ten dramas. Gold Through the Trees, staged in 1952, was the first professionally produced play in New York by an African-American woman.

Childress' fiction career began with a serialized column, "Here's Mildred," in the newspapers Freedom and Baltimore Afro-American. The fictitious Mildred was a domestic in an uptown New York apartment whose relegated position of anonymity allowed her to comment on the comings and goings of the building's inhabitants. The columns were collected as Childress' first book, Like One of the Family … Conversations from a Domestic's Life (1956). She is best recognized for her adolescent fiction, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973), later produced as a movie, and for Rainbow Jordan (1981).

In July 1957, Childress married musician Nathan Woodard. They collaborated to incorporate music in Childress' later plays, which depict life in the Gullah Islands of South Carolina. Childress and Woodard also traveled extensively, first to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Childress was playwright-in-residence at Radcliffe's Institute for Independent Study. In 1971, she went to Russia to study the culture; in 1973, she explored the theater arts in China; and in 1974, she participated in Ghana's summer drama festival.

Childress' daughter Jean developed cancer in her 50s and Alice nursed her until Jean's death in 1990. Childress died at age 77 in 1994. She is recognized as a trailblazer for African-American women in drama, ahead of her more famous peer Lorraine Hansberry , for her creation of a catalog of leading characters.


David, Thadious M., and Trudier Harris, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1985.

Jennings, LaVinia Delois. Alice Childress. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts

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Childress, Alice (1916–1994)

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