Alice ChildressJun 19th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment, Education, Social Sciences
1916-1994 Alice Childress was a pioneering writer and actress whose award-winning plays and novels were praised for their insightful, compassionate portrayal of realistic characters in difficult situations. With frank language addressing complicated subjects such as racism, sexism, miscegenation, urban poverty, and drug addiction, Childress’ work raised awareness of social issues and was often controversial.
Storytelling on the Stage
Childress was born October 12, 1916, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents separated when she was nine years old, and she went to live in Harlem, New York, with her maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell White, who encouraged her interest in the arts and writing. One anecdote tells of White pointing to passersby and asking Childress what she thought each person was thinking. When Childress guessed, White would say, “Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep.”
Childress attended New York public schools, but although a good student, she left high school before graduating. Her first marriage to actor Alvin Childress produced a daughter, Jean R. Childress, born November 1, 1935. In 1940, she joined Harlem’s American Negro Theater where she served as an actress, writer, director, and in other capacities. She became known as a talented actress and performed in the opening cast of the 1944 Broadway production of Anna Lucasta. She also helped create an off-Broadway actors’ union, working with the Harlem Stage Hands Local Union and the Actors’ Equity Association.
Childress’ writing career began in 1949 with her one-act play, Florence, in which she also starred and directed. The play focuses on a black mother’s reluctance to support her daughter’s acting dreams until she encounters a racist white actress. In 1950, Childress wrote Just a Little Simple, an adaptation of a Langston Hughes novel. Her 1952 play, Gold Through the Trees, was the first by a black woman to be professionally produced in the United States. Another work, Trouble in Mind, earned her a 1956 Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, the first Obie awarded to a woman. Produced in 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, it is a play within a play that deals with sexism, racism, and difficulties faced by black actors at the time. The story features a group of actors rehearsing a play that involves a lynching, and explores what happens when the African American heroine questions her racially stereotyped role.
Also in 1956, Childress published the short fiction collection Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestics Life. In 1957 she married Nathan Woodard, a musician who contributed to many of Childress’ plays; the two created Young Martin Luther King, Jr. (originally titled The Freedom Drum) in 1968. She continued to act on stage as well through the 1950s and 1960s. One of her more controversial plays, 1966’s Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, concerns the illegal marriage of a white baker and a black seamstress in South Carolina during World War I. It was first staged at the University of Michigan and later produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1972. The following year, ABC aired it on television, though eight local stations refused to broadcast it.
Theater and Literature
Childress is best known for her 1973 novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, an influential, controversial work that addresses teen drug abuse, sexuality, and parental expectations through the character of 13- year-old Benjie. The book received national acclaim, including recognition as a New York Times Book Review Outstanding Book of the Year, nomination for a 1974 National Book Award, the 1974 Jane Addams Award for a Young Adult Novel, an American Library Association Award for the Best Young Adult Book of 1975, and the 1975 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. Nevertheless, the novel was banned in some school libraries and was among those listed as offensive in the Supreme Court case Island Trees Union Board of Education v. Pico. In 1978, the book was made into a movie for which Childress wrote the screenplay.
Her other young adult novels include Rainbow Jordan (1981) and Those Other People (1989), which concern a young girl with a mostly absent mother and a teenage boy struggling with his homosexuality Rainbow Jordan was named one of 1981s Best Books by the School Library Journal and a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year, and received an honorable mention for the Coretta Scott King Award. Her adult novel, A Short Walk, was published in 1979.
In addition to novels, essays, and movie and television scripts, Childress also authored several works that brought attention to both outstanding individuals such as the play Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne, a tribute to performer Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and to ordinary people. Throughout her work, she wrote about people whose everyday experiences raised greater social questions. “My writing attempts to interpret the ‘ordinary’ because they are not ordinary Each human is uniquely different,” Childress said. “I concentrate on portraying have-nots in a have society.”
To that end, she pursued inspiration and lifelong education both through conventional means—she was a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study from 1966-1968, an artist-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1984, and a lecturer at Fisk University—and through travel. Childress made several trips to Russia, China, and West Africa. When her daughter developed cancer, Childress cared for her until her death in 1990. Four years later, on August 14, 1994, Childress herself died of cancer in Queens, New York. She was 77. At the time, she was writing a story about her African great-grandmother, who was a slave, and her Scottish-Irish great-grandmother.
During her career, Childress was a member of PEN, the Dramatists Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Writers Guild of America East, and the Harlem Writers Guild. Her awards include a Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts, Radcliffe Graduate Society medal, Audelco Pioneer Award, Harlem School of the Arts Humanitarian Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Theater in Higher Education.