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Meet Playwright Alice Childress

Playwright Alice Childress

By Rachelle Hughes

“I continue to create because writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance, a way to light a candle in a gale wind.”

—Alice Childress

Born in 1916 in South Carolina, Alice Childress, born Alice Herndon, moved to Harlem at age nine to live with her grandmother after the separation of her parents. Her grandmother Eliza Campbell White raised her and encouraged her to write and pursue the arts. Despite dropping out of high school after two years, Childress pursued an education in the theatre. Like most New York actresses, she started by working low paying jobs in Harlem while getting her foot in the acting door. She eventually furthered her education and her theatre skill set by joining the American Negro Theatre where she worked as an actress, stage manager, personnel director, and costume designer for eleven years. In the 1930s she married and divorced Alvin Childress. They have one daughter, Jean Childress. Later, she married musician Nathan Woodard whom she eventually collaborated with on some musicals later in her career. The reality of Alice Childress’s childhood, her family history, and her experience seeped into her plays, giving her authentic insight into the black culture and experience. 

Long before Childress became known for her unapologetic and authentic plays on black lives, she was a talented actress. Her acting credits included Natural Man (1941), Rain (1948), and The Emperor’s Clothes (1953). Her role in Anna Lucasta (1944) reportedly earned Childress a Tony Award nomination; however, there is some debate as to the accuracy of this claim that has been made in some of her biographies. In 1949, she began her playwriting career with the one act play, Florence. She also starred in her first play that explored the themes that would become the hallmark of her own plays: interracial politics, working-class life, attacks on black stereotypes, and empowerment of black women. 

“She has been credited with many ‘firsts’” as Helen Shaw says in her 2020 essay for online magazine Vulture (“Alice Childress Didn’t Defang Her Plays, and Producers Said No,” <https://www.vulture.com/ 2020/01/ alice-childress-trouble-in-mind.html>, January 8, 2020). She became the first black woman playwright to have an all Equity cast with her play Gold through the Trees (1952), and this play along with Just a Little Simple (1950) helped bring her accolades as the first professionally produced black female playwright. When Childress’s first full-length, dramatic play, Trouble in Mind (1955) about racism in the theatre world was produced at Stella Holt’s Greenwich Mews Theatre, it brought her yet another first as the first black female playwright to be awarded an Obie Award. The comic drama Trouble in Mind ran for ninety-one shows initially but never made its way to Broadway in her lifetime despite predictions that it would. Producers wanted her to make changes that Childress was unwilling to make. 

Of all of her plays, Trouble in Mind has seen the most attention on today’s stages. The 2022 Utah Shakespeare Festival is the latest regional theatre to take on Childress’s Trouble in Mind and itsheroine Willetta’s fight to overcome black stereotypes and racism in the theatre. However, it wasn’t always so. The play was written in 1955 and was optioned for Broadway but never opened there because Childress would not tone down the dialogue for the show’s white producers. The action around the play is eerily analogous to the play itself, where the white director in Trouble in Mind says: “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it, two, they don’t want to believe it, and three, they’re convinced they’re superior.” 

Unafraid of taking on the controversial topics of her time Childress’s next dramatic play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, which dealt with interracial relationships, was a fight for Childress to get to the stage. As theatre critic Tony Adler wrote, “Written in 1962 but unseen onstage until 1966 because, the story goes, Broadway theaters were afraid to touch it (the premiere finally took place at the University of Michigan)” (“Who’s Alice Childress? We Should All Know,” Chicago Reader, https://chicagoreader.com/ arts-culture/ whos-alice-childress-we-should-all-know, 2017). By the end of her career Childress had written thirteen plays including some musicals in conjunction with her composer-husband Woodard. Together they collaborated on Young Martin Luther King (1968) and Sea Island Song (1977). As Shaw (2020) said, “Any list of great American playwrights is incomplete without Alice Childress—her cool eye saw deep into history, into the theater, into blackness, into whiteness.”

Childress also became known for her young adult novels including Those Other People (1989) and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973). The latter had the most literary traction and she later adapted it as a screenplay in 1978 starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Never one to shy away from difficult topics, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich dealt with the social issues of racism, drug use, teen pregnancy, and homosexuality (M. Granshaw, “Alice Childress (1916–1994),”Blackpast.Org, https://www.blackpast.org/ african-american-history/ childress-alice-1916-1994/, January 31, 2019). After it was released some school districts and libraries banned the book. Just seven years later her novel A Short Walk was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. 

Her words and work have been called savage, poetic, honest, and risky. She was not afraid to speak her mind and tell the stories she saw. Sometimes it brought her dazzling success even if it never brought her plays to a Broadway hit. She garnered many awards in her time for her incessant and passionate work, including a Rockefeller grant, a graduate medal from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, the Radcliffe Alumnae Graduate Society Medal for Distinguished Achievement, a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and a Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).

She died from cancer at 77 years old in 1994. At the time of her death she was working on a piece that was true to her themes, as always: a story about her African great-grandmother, who had been a slave, and her Scotch-Irish great-grandmother.

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