Alice Childress

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Alice Childress
Born(1916-10-12)October 12, 1916
Charleston, South Carolina
DiedAugust 14, 1994(1994-08-14) (aged 77)
New York City
OccupationPlaywright, novelist, actress
Notable worksLike One of the Family (1956); A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973)

Alice Childress (October 12, 1916[1] – August 14, 1994) was an American novelist, playwright, and actress, acknowledged as "the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades."[2] Childress described her work as trying to portray the have-nots in a have society,[3] saying: "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 marvellously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."[4] Childress also became involved in social causes, and formed an off-Broadway union for actors.[5]

Alice Childress's paper archive is held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, NY.[6]

Early years[edit]

Childress (nee Herndon) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but at the age of nine, after her parents separated, she moved to Harlem where she lived with her grandmother, Eliza Campbell White, on 118th Street, between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue.[7][8] Though her grandmother had no formal education, she encouraged Alice to pursue her talents in reading and writing.[9] Alice attended public school in New York for her middle-school education and went on to Wadleigh High School, but had to drop out once her grandmother died.[7] She became involved in theater immediately after her high school and she did not attend college.[10]

Career[edit]

Acting[edit]

She took odd jobs to pay for herself, including domestic worker, photo retoucher, assistant machinist, saleslady, and insurance agent. In 1939, she studied Drama in the American Negro Theatre (ANT), and performed there for 11 years. She acted in Abram Hill and John Silvera's On Strivers Row (1940), Theodore Brown's Natural Man (1941), and Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta (1944).[10] There she won acclaim as an actress in numerous other productions, and moved to Broadway with the transfer of ANT's hit Anna Lucasta, which became the longest-running all-black play in Broadway history;[11] she won a Tony award nomination for her starring performance[2][4] among a cast that also included Hilda Simms, Canada Lee, Georgia Burke, Earle Hyman and Frederick O'Neal.[12]

Playwriting[edit]

In 1949 she began her writing career with the one-act play Florence, which she directed and starred in, and which reflected many of the themes that are characteristic of her later writing, including the empowerment of black women, interracial politics, and working-class life.[3][13]In Florence, a black, Southern, working-class woman, Mama Whitney, decides to travel by train from South Carolina to New York City to retrieve her daughter, Florence, who is a struggling actor. However, after a white woman waiting for the same train offers to help Florence by recommending her for a job as a main, Mama Whitney decides to send her daughter money instead bringing her home.[8][14] Childress' goal in writing Florence was to "settle an argument with fellow actors (Sidney Poitier among others) who said that in a play about Negroes and whites, only a 'life and death thing' like lynching is interesting on stage."[15]

Her 1950 play, Just a Little Simple, was adapted from the Langston Hughes novel Simple Speaks His Mind and was produced in Harlem at the Club Baron Theatre. Her next play, Gold Through the Trees (1952), gave her the distinction of being one of the first African-American women to have worked professionally produced on the New York stage.[16] The success of these plays enabled her to bring Harlem’s first all-union off-Broadway contracts into practice.[17]

Childress's first full-length, dramatic play, Trouble in Mind was produced at Stella Holt's Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955 and ran for 91 performances.[8] Trouble in Mind won an Obie award for the best off-Broadway play of the 1955–56 season,[2] making Childress the first African-American woman to be awarded the honor.[13] Trouble in Mind is about racism in the theater world. In a play with-in-a-play, Childress depicts the frustrations of black actors and actresses in mainstream white theater. [8][18]

She completed her next dramatic work, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, in 1962. Its setting is South Carolina during World War I and deals with a forbidden interracial love affair. Due to the scandalous nature of the show and the stark realism it presented, it was impossible for Childress to get any theatre in New York to stage it. The show premiered in 1966 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and was also produced in Chicago. It was not until 1972 that it played in New York at the New York Shakespeare Festival, starring Ruby Dee.[2] It was later filmed and shown on TV, but many stations refused to play it.[19]

In 1965, Childress was featured in the BBC presentation The Negro in the American Theatre. From 1966 to 1968, she was a scholar-in-residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.[20][21]

In conjunction with her composer husband, Nathan Woodard, she wrote a number of musical plays, including Young Martin Luther King (originally entitled The Freedom Drum) in 1968 and Sea Island Song (1977).[3]

Young adult books[edit]

Alice Childress is also known for her young adult novels, among which are Those Other People (1989) and A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973). She adapted the latter as a screenplay for the 1978 feature film also entitled A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Her 1979 novel A Short Walk was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.[11]

Personal life[edit]

She had used the names Louise Henderson and Alice Herndon[22] before her marriage in 1934 to actor Alvin Childress. The couple had a daughter together, Jean R. Childress, and divorced in 1957,[23] when musician Nathan Woodard became her second husband.[3][13]

She died of cancer, aged 77, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York.[17][22] At the time of her death she was working on a story about her African great-grandmother, Ani-Campbell, who had been a slave,[24][8] and her Scots-Irish great-grandmother.[25]

Awards[edit]

  • Off-Broadway Magazine (Trouble In Mind), 1956
  • ALA Best Young Adult Book of 1975 (for A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich)
  • Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (for A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich)
  • Jane Addams Award for a young adult novel (for A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich)
  • Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts, 1980
  • Honorable Mention, Coretta Scott King Award, 1982
  • What a Girl, 1985

Major works[edit]

Plays[edit]

  • Florence (1949)
  • Just a Little Simple (1950)
  • Gold Through the Trees (1952)
  • Trouble in Mind (1955)
  • Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (1966)
  • The Freedom Dream, later retitled Young Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
  • String (1969)
  • Wine in the Wilderness (1969)
  • Mojo: A Black Love Story (1970)
  • When the Rattlesnake Sounds (1975)
  • Let's Hear It for the Queen (1976)
  • Sea Island Song , later retitled Gullah (1977)
  • Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (1987)

Novels[edit]

Trivia[edit]

The song "Alice Childress" by Ben Folds Five is not related to her. It is a coincidence that there was a woman with the same name that poured water on Ben Folds' wife at the time, Anna Goodman.[26]

Childress was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.[27]

References[edit]

  1. ^ PAL: Perspectives in American Literature-A Research and Reference Guide
  2. ^ a b c d Mary Helen Washington, "Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Claudia Jones: Black Women Write the Popular Front", in Bill Mullen and James Edward Smethurst (eds), Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States, Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003, p. 186.
  3. ^ a b c d "Alice Childress", Black History Now.
  4. ^ a b Margaret Busby, "Alice Childress", Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent, Vintage, 1993, p. 279.
  5. ^ William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, "Childress, Alice", The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 72.
  6. ^ "archives.nypl.org -- Alice Childress papers". archives.nypl.org. Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  7. ^ a b Biography Today: Author Series. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc. 1996. p. 18. ISBN 0-7808-0014-1.
  8. ^ a b c d e Delois., Jennings, La Vinia (1995). Alice Childress. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805739637. OCLC 32050492.
  9. ^ Jennings, La Vinia Delois (1995). Alice Childress (Twayne's United States Author Series). Woodbridge, CT: Twayne Publisher. ISBN 0805739637.
  10. ^ a b Biography Today, p. 19.
  11. ^ a b Sue Woodman, "A testimonial to black America" (obituary of Alice Childress), The Guardian, September 14, 1994.
  12. ^ Stephen Bourne, "Obituary: Alice Childress", The Independent, August 29, 1994.
  13. ^ a b c Michelle Granshaw, "Childress, Alice (1916-1994)", BlackPast.org.
  14. ^ Als, Hilton (2011-10-03). "Alice Childress, the Last Woman Standing". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  15. ^ E., Abramson, Doris (1969). Negro playwrights in the American theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 023103248X. OCLC 6324.
  16. ^ The New York Public Library Performing Arts Desk Reference. New York: Macmillan. 1994. p. 12. ISBN 0-02-861447-X.
  17. ^ a b Alice Sussman, "Alice Childress 1920–1994", Contemporary Black Biography, 1997, Encyclopedia.com.
  18. ^ Sommers, Michael (2014-04-19). "A Play About a Play Reveals Racial Tensions". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  19. ^ Biography Today, pp. 19–20.
  20. ^ Biography Today, p. 20.
  21. ^ "Notes Taken at Fisk Writers Conference", Negro Digest, June 1966, p. 90.
  22. ^ a b "Alice Childress Biography", Bio.
  23. ^ "Trouble in Mind Notes", The Actors Company Theatre.
  24. ^ Jen N. Fluke, Alice Childress Biography, Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota, February 28, 2003.
  25. ^ Sheila Rule, "Alice Childress, 77, a Novelist; Drew Themes From Black Life", The New York Times, August 19, 1994.
  26. ^ iTunes Originals interview with Ben Folds.
  27. ^ Lakeisha Harding, "Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. (1922- )", BlackPast.org.

External links[edit]