October 12, 1916|
Charleston, South Carolina
|Died||August 14, 1994
New York City
Alice Childress (October 12, 1916 – August 14, 1994) was an American playwright, actor, and author, acknowledged as "the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades." Childress described her writing as trying to portray the have-nots in a have society, 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." Childress also became involved in social causes, and formed an off-Broadway union for actors.
Childress 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 on 118th Street, between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Though her grandmother had no formal education, she encouraged Alice to pursue her talents in reading and writing. 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. She became involved in theater immediately after her high school and she did not attend college.
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). 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; she won a Tony award nomination for her starring performance among a cast that also included Hilda Simms, Canada Lee, Georgia Burke, Earle Hyman and Frederick O'Neal.
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.
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 work professionally produced on the New York stage. The success of these plays enabled her to bring Harlem’s first all-union off-Broadway contracts into practice.
When her play Trouble in Mind was produced at Stella Holt's Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955 it won an Obie award for the best off-Broadway play of the 1955–56 season, making Childress the first African-American woman to be awarded the honor.
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. It was later filmed and shown on TV, but many stations refused to play it.
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.
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).
Young adult books
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.
She had used the names Louise Henderson and Alice Herndon before her marriage in 1934 to actor Alvin Childress. They had a daughter together, Jean R. Childress, and divorced in 1957, when musician Nathan Woodard became her second husband.
She died of cancer, aged 77, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York. At the time of her death she was working on a story about her African great-grandmother, who had been a slave, and her Scots-Irish great-grandmother.
- Obie award for best off-Broadway play of 1955–56 (Trouble In Mind)
- 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
- 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)
- String (1969)
- Wine in the Wilderness (1969)
- Mojo: A Black Love Story (1970)
- Sea Island Song (1977)
- Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (1987)
- Like One of the Family (1956)
- A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973), which became a film of the same title in 1978.
- A Short Walk (1979)
- Rainbow Jordan (1981)
- Those Other People (1989)
- PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide
- 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.
- "Alice Childress", Black History Now.
- Margaret Busby, "Alice Childress", Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent, Vintage, 1993, p. 279.
- William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, "Childress, Alice", The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 72.
- Biography Today: Author Series. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc. 1996. p. 18. ISBN 0-7808-0014-1.
- Biography Today, p. 18.
- Biography Today, p. 19.
- Sue Woodman, Obituary of Alice Childress - "A testimonial to black America", The Guardian, September 14, 1994.
- Stephen Bourne, "Obituary: Alice Childress", The Independent, August 29, 1994.
- Granshaw, Michelle, "Childress, Alice (1916-1994)", BlackPast.org.
- The New York Public Library Performing Arts Desk Reference. New York: Macmillan. 1994. p. 12. ISBN 0-02-861447-X.
- Alice Sussman, "Alice Childress 1920–1994", Contemporary Black Biography, 1997, Encyclopedia.com.
- Biography Today, pp. 19-20.
- Biography Today, p. 20.
- "Notes Taken at Fisk Writers Conference", Negro Digest, June 1966, p. 90.
- "Alice Childress Biography", Bio.
- "Trouble in Mind Notes", The Actors Company Theatre.
- Jen N. Fluke, Alice Childress Biography, Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota, February 28, 2003.
- Sheila Rule, "Alice Childress, 77, a Novelist; Drew Themes From Black Life", The New York Times, August 19, 1994.
- iTunes Originals interview with Ben Folds.
- Harding, Lakeisha, "Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. (1922- )", BlackPast.org.