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A noted dramatist of adult works that deal with a variety of racial and social issues, Alice Childress is also the author of acclaimed young adult fiction and plays. Like her writings for adults, her young adult works are recognized for vivid characterizations and dialogue that depict the harsh effects of racial prejudice, sexism, and abuse.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised by Her Grandmother in Harlem
Although the year of her birth is widely recorded as 1920, Alice Childress was born on October 12, 1916, in Charleston, South Carolina. After her parents separated, Childress moved to Harlem to live with her maternal grandmother, Eliza, the child of a slave. Eliza taught her granddaughter to appreciate life itself as education, and she made certain that Childress had a wide range of experiences. As she took Childress on walking tours to different neighbor-hoods throughout the city, to art galleries, and to the churches of Harlem, she encouraged her granddaughter to reflect on what they observed by writing about it.
After Death of Grandmother and Mother, a Career in Theater
Childress quickly discovered that she could turn the stories she had written with her grandmother into books, and she became an avid reader of plays, short stories, novels and screenplays. In school, Childress enjoyed acting, but her public school education abruptly ended in the early 1930s when both her grandmother and her mother died. On her own, Childress left high school and began working to support herself. Shortly thereafter, she met her first husband, Alvin Childress, who had moved from Mississippi to New York in search of a career in the theater. In 1935, Childress’s only child was born, and although her personal circumstances had changed markedly, her interest in writing and acting did not diminish. Childress began her career in the theater, initially as an actress and later as a director and playwright. In the late 1930s, she and her husband wrote at least one play together, and by 1941, both were members of the American Negro Theatre (ANT).
Amos ‘n’ Andy
Though tens of thousands of African Americans served their country bravely in World War II, they returned home to find they were still second-class citizens, legally deprived of equal rights with whites. Though President Harry Truman officially ended racial segregation in the armed forces with an executive order in 1948, segregation in civilian life was still the rule. Though many in the black community had actively pushed for equal rights for decades, the post-war experience of black veterans spurred the more widespread civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
By the late 1940s, Childress’s marriage was shaky, in part due to her husband’s role in one of the most controversial television shows of the era. Alice lived in New York and was actively involved in the ANT, where she acted, directed, sold tickets, and built sets. At the same time, Alvin lived on the West Coast, preparing for his role as Amos in Amos ‘n’ Andy, the first situation comedy on television to have an all-black cast. Amos ‘n’ Andy, a show conceived and directed by two white men, proved to be the subject of tremendous discord in the black community because of its stereotypical portrayals of blacks. The show’s actors, Alvin Childress included, did not see the show as presenting a detrimental view of African Americans. Alice, however, did.
Even though Amos ‘n’ Andy contributed to the failure of Childress’s marriage, the show and the issues it raised helped shape her career as a playwright. Both the radio and television versions of Amos ‘n’ Andy focused primarily on African Americans from the rural South, generally portraying them as naive, unsophisticated, and lacking in dignity and integrity. Such prejudiced misrepresentation clearly rankled Childress, who challenged that stereotype with her first performed play, Florence. In this drama, the main character is a smart African American woman from the rural South who assures her daughter that she has the right to be whatever she wants to be, even if the white community tells her she cannot. Childress’s message is clear: if stereotypes of African Americans are to be successfully eliminated, then African Americans themselves must demonstrate self-determination.
In 1957, Childress married musician Nathan Woodard. She spent the 1960s primarily writing dramas; in the second half of the decade alone, Childress finished six different plays during her appointment as a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work during these years reflects her continued dedication to the need for black self-determination and definition, and she redoubled her efforts to champion ordinary black women.
During the 1970s, Childress produced her greatest range of work: a one-act play, a musical, two children’s plays, and two novels. One of these novels was Childress’s landmark young adult work, A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich, which caused a sensation with its realistic description of the life of a thirteen-year-old heroin addict. Let’s Hear It for the Queen (1976), a musical children’s play written for Childress’s granddaughter, and Sea Island Song, a musical sponsored by the South Carolina Arts Commission in 1977 in celebration of Alice Childress Week in Columbia and Charleston, were collaborations with Woodard.
Lifetime Achievement and Dedication to Realism
During the 1990s Alice Childress continued to receive accolades for her work, notably 1993’s Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, while her plays continued to be produced throughout the country. At the time of her death from cancer on August 14, 1994, she was at work on a book about her grandmother and great-grandmother. Going so far as to research the names of the streets in nineteenth-century downtown Charleston, Childress demonstrated in this, her final project, an unwavering dedication both to realism and to the extraordinary lives of ordinary African Americans—women in particular—who, despite nearly overwhelming obstacles, persevere in creating lives of dignity.
Works in Literary Context
Encouraged to write early in life, Childress credits her grandmother with helping her develop not only creativity, but also instinct and independence as a writer. Undoubtedly, Childress was a unique, important voice in the development of drama. Her 1952 play, Gold through the Trees, became the first play by a black woman ever to be produced professionally on an American stage, and her 1955 drama, Trouble in the Mind, received an Obie Award as the best original Off-Broadway play. Despite feeling alone in her ideas challenging racism in the literary world, Childress broke barriers in African-American literature of all genres.
A predominant feature that runs throughout all of Childress’s writings is her focus on portraying the lives of “ordinary” people. In Black Women Writers, Childress describes how this is a major thematic concern in her writing: ”I continue to write about those who come in second, or not at all. . . . 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. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne.” As a result, her characters are believable and memorable.
In several novels aimed at a young adult audience, Childress displays her ability to create authentic characters. In A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich, for instance, Childress’s approach to the narrative structure of the story strengthens her characterization. Told from a variety of perspectives—not only from the boy’s point of view, but also that of friends and family—the book gives insight into the various influences on the boy’s life. As she does in her plays for adults, Childress develops powerful characters with gripping dialogue in A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. In fact, so realistic are her characters, the vivid details about their lives and their frank language, that the book has been banned from some school libraries. It was also one of nine books included in a book-banning case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Works in Critical Context
Childress’s work is praised for its unflinching treatment of racial issues, its compassionate yet discerning characterization, and its universal appeal. Although her young adult novels have been protested by groups that criticize her language and subject matter, the books are also widely praised for their sensitive, challenging portrayal of the problems facing urban teenagers. As Geraldine L. Wilson remarks, ”The themes are painful, but Childress handles them well, resolving the difficult conflicts in realistic, sensitive, direct fashion and in ways that seem consistent with the characters.” Despite inciting controversy with her works, Childress successfully relates the story of a significant and underrepresented part of America’s population.
Trouble in Mind
Staged in 1955, Trouble in Mind was one of the first plays in dramatic history to deal with African American themes. As such, it ”prompts one’s troubled mind to consider how many racial stereotypes persist today,” writes reviewer Mike Guiliano. He continues: ”The play was written at a time when Jim Crow laws were being judicially exorcised, but condescending social attitudes remained in every stage of American life, even among well-intentioned white liberals.” Expressed with dynamic dialogue that is at once sad and humorous, the issues presented in Trouble in Mind continue to be pertinent in today’s society.
As in her novels, Childress is direct and unapologetic in Trouble in Mind as she writes about African American issues in the theater. Trouble in Mind is a play within a play that focuses on a troupe of black actors and their anger and frustration at being cast as stereotypes in a play written, produced, and directed by whites, a situation similar to that of Childress’s first husband in Amos ‘n’ Andy. Critic Arthur Gelb comments that in Trouble in Mind, 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.” Even though they resent what they have to do in order to appear on stage, the African American actors in Trouble in Mind ”generally go along with it because, well, work is work,” says Giuliano. He further praises Childress’s ”fine job of elucidating the vary degrees to which they
- Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
- Childress, Alice. ”A Candle in a Gale Wind,” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Mari Evans. New York: Doubleday-Anchor Books, 1984.
- Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. Glenview, 1ll.: Scott, Foresman, 1980.
- Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980). New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1984.
- Hatch, James V. Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans. New York: Free Press, 1974.
- Schlueter, June, ed. A Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.
- Barnes, Clive. ”’Wedding Band;’ Childress Play Opens at Public Theater.” New York Times (October 27, 1972): 30.
- Gelb, Arthur. ”1973: A Selection of Noteworthy Titles.” New York Times (December 2, 1973): 525.
- Giuliano, Mike. ”Review of Trouble in Mind.” Daily Variety (February 15, 2007): vol. 294, no. 35, p. 8.
- Wilson, Geraldine. ”Review of Rainbow Jordan.” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (1981): vol. 12, no. 7-8, pp. 24-25.
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