Chapter 8: American Drama
| A Brief Biography |
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Source: Women of Color Women of Word
Chronology (from Jennings xv-xvi, listed below)
1916 Alice Herndon Childress born in Charleston, South Carolina, 12 October.
1925 Taken to Harlem after parents separate to live with maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell White.
1935 Daughter Jean R. Childress born 1 November.
1940 Appears as Dolly in John Silvera and Abram Hill's On Striver's Row.
1941 Joins the American Negro Theatre. Appears as Polly Ann in Theodore Browne's Natural Man.
1944 Role in the Broadway production of Anna Lucasta draws Tony Award nomination.
1948 Appears as Sadie Thompson in John Colton and Clemence Randolph's adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Rain and as Muriel in Harry Wagstaff Gribble's Almost Faithful.
1949 Florence (Play).
1950 Just a Little Simple (Play).
1952 Gold through the Trees, first professionally produced play by an African American woman.
1953 Appears in the off-Broadway production of The World of Sholom Aleichem and as Bella in George Tabori's The Emperor's Clothes.
1954 Trouble in Mind (Play).
1956 Like One of the Family & Conversations from a Domestic's Life (anthologized vignettes). First woman to receive Obie Award, for Trouble in Mind.
1957 Marries musician Nathan Woodard, 17 July.
1960 Appears as Mrs. Thurston in Warren Miller and Robert Rossen's The Cool World.
1965 Appears on BBC discussion panel, "The Negro In the American Theatre."
1966 Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (Play).
1966-68 Attends Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.
1968 The Freedom Drum, later retitled Young Martin Luther King, Jr. (Play).
1969 String: Wine in the Wilderness (Play).
1970 Mojo (Play).
1971 Visits Russia to study Soviet life, art, and culture.
1972 Wedding Band performed at the Shakespeare Public Theatre, New York.
1973 A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a sandwich (novel). Visits mainland China to observe the theater arts in Peking and Shanghai.
1974 Visits University of Ghana, West Africa, for summer drama festival.
1975 When the Rattlesnake Sounds (Play).
1976 Let's Hear It for the Queen (Play).
1977 Alice Childress Week celebrated in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina. Sea Island Song, later retitled Gullah, performed (Play).
1978 Premiere of film version of A Hero Ain't Nothin; but a Sandwich.
1979 A Short Walk (novel).
1980 Rainbow Jordan (novel).
1984 Artist-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
1987 Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne.
1989 Those Other People (novel).
1990 Daughter Jean dies of cancer, 14 May.
1994 Childress dies of cancer in Queens, New York, 14 August.
Plays: Florence, 1949; Just a Little Simple, 1950; Gold through the Trees, 1952; Trouble in Mind, 1954; Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, 1966; Young Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968; String: Wine in the Wilderness, 1969; Mojo, 1970; When the Rattlesnake Sounds, 1975; Let's Hear It for the Queen, 1976; Gullah, 1977. Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne, 1987.
Novels A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, 1973; A Short Walk, 1979; Rainbow Jordan, 1980; Those Other People, 1989.
A Short Walk. NY: Feminist P at the City U of New York, 2006.
Selected Bibliography 1980-Present
Bower, Martha G. 'Color Struck' under the Gaze: Ethnicity and the Pathology of Being in the Plays of Johnson, Hurston, Childress, Hansberry, and Kennedy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
Commire, Anne, et al. eds. Women In World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. 3 vol. Detroit: Yorkin Publishers/Gale Group, 1999.
Cranshaw, Joy E. "African Queens and Messed-Up Chicks: Representations of Identity in Alice Childress's Wine in the Wilderness." in Harris, Trudier and Larson, Jennifer. eds. Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self. NY: Peter Lang, 2007.
Evans, Mari. ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.
Balestrini, Nassim W. "The Invisible Black Female Artist in Alice Childress' Florence (1950)." in Fisher, Jerilyn, and Ellen S. Silber. eds. Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.
Jennings, La Vinia D. Alice Childress. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Higashida, Cheryl. Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945-1995. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011.
Lisker, Donna. "'Controversy Only Means Disagreement': Alice Childress's Activist Drama." in McDonald, Robert L. and Paige, Linda R. eds. Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2002.
Maufort, Marc. ed. Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama. NY: Peter Lang, 1995.
McDonald, Kathlene. Feminism, the Left, and Postwar Literary Culture. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2012.
Washington, Mary H. "Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Claudia Jones: Black Women Write the Popular Front." in Mullen, Bill V. and Smethurst, James. eds. Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003.
Maguire, Roberta S. "Alice Childress." in Wheatley, Christopher, ed. Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Third Series. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2002.
A Student Project for Professor Reuben's English 4990: Senior Seminar: American Drama, Spring 2003.
A Student Project by Gena McKinsey
Alice Childress was born on October 12, 1916 in Charleston, South Caroline. After her parents separated, she moved to Harlem with her mother, where she attended public school. She lived with her maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell White, who taught her to, "approach her life as an education." (Women In World History 682) Childress was known to frequent the museums and libraries of New York. Her mother encouraged her to, "make up stories about the people she watched and to study the behavior and culture of New York City's melting pot." (682) Childress's formal education halted, after two years of high school, when her mother and maternal grandmother died. Childress then gave birth to a daughter in 1935. She was alone and was forced to support herself and her child.
In 1940 she joined the American Negro Threatre (ANT) in Harlem, "where she proceeded to do everything there is to be done in the theatre." (Jennings ix) Childress was an actor before becoming a writer. By the end of the decade, she completed her first play called Florence. This one-act play commenced her writing career. She wrote twelve plays, one anthologized vignettes, three children's books, and one novel. Childress was the first black woman to get her plays professionally produced on stage in New York. For all of her accomplishments as a Black Woman, her efforts went largely unnoticed.
Alice Childress was not a well known playwright in her time. Even today, her writing continues to be overlooked by critics, writers, theater historians, and scholars. Her writing did not follow in the shadow of the male dramatists; rather she had her own agenda with her writing. The men and women playwrights from the mid-century, "put race before gender, they conjointly fostered the myopic belief that truly stirring and captivating race drama was sensationalized, male-focused drama. Given priority treatment in their plays were the themes of lynching and the denigration and disenfranchisement of the black solider." (Jennings ix) Childress's plays would allude to some of these same themes, but her main rationale was to combine her gender with her art. She shocked her audiences and critics with her skilled characterization of African Americans.
Her first play, Florence 1949 was Childress's first endeavor in her professional playwriting. This play was written overnight, which critics contribute to its simplicity. Others have noted that if you study this play with a "deeper analysis, however, reveals a subtly powerful, well-crafted play." (Jennings 20) Childress's main point is that Blacks, not their White counterparts, must fight for "political and economic equality." (Jennings 22) Childress lived in a society were Blacks were not allowed to share White space. They were not allowed to enter through the same door as White people, drink from the same fountains, even ride on the same bus. This type of inhumane treatment fueled her writings. In 1950 she wrote Just a Little Simple, which was based on Langston Hughes's novel Simple Speaks His Mind. This play was first produced in New York City at Club Baron Theatre. Her next endeavor, Gold Through the Trees was the first play ever professionally produced in New York City by a Black Woman. Her next play, Trouble in Mind, was produced Off-Broadway, directed by Childress, at Greenwich Mews Theatre on November 3, 1955. In this play, Childress creates a play within a play. She continues her theme of sexism and racism. This play "weighted with allusions to places and incidents associated with the turbulent civil rights movement that began in the 1950's." (Jennings 27) When this play was produced, Childress used a drastically diverse cast, for the 1950's, to demonstrate an anti-lynching drama. Her next play did not surface until 1966.
| Top | Wedding Band: A Love/Hate story in Black and White was first produced in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the University of Michigan, on December 7, 1966. It was later produced Off-Broadway in the New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre, directed by Childress and Joseph Papp, on September 26, 1972. This play explores interracial, heterosexual relations, and black women's rights. The play was about an interracial relationship that takes place in South Carolina during World War 1. It also conveys the differential treatment between the lower socioeconomic groups within the same racial identity. This play can be, "read today as a history lesson pointed at white women to remind them and us, in 1966 or now, that our vision of sisterly equality has always left some sisters out." (Wiley 185) She is also challenging the rigid laws that prohibited white men from marrying black women. In 1968 she wrote The Freedom Drum later re-titled Young Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, in 1969 she wrote String: Wine in the Wilderness and Mojo. She took a five year break from writing plays, and traveled to Russia so she could study Soviet life, art, and culture.
Childress expanded her writing abilities from plays to novels. She wrote three children's novels, A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich (1973), Rainbow Jordan (1981), and Those other People (1989). These novels, "contained moving depictions of alienated and lonely teenagers faced with finding security, acceptance, and selfhood in social environs hostile to their development as emotionally whole individuals." (Jennings 82) She wrote these books to help isolated children feel that they have reason to feel optimistic, "since all human beings can be magnificent once they realize their full importance." (Betsko and Koenig, 65) In 1978, A Hero Ain't Nothing but a Sandwich was made into a film.
Between 1975 and 1987 she recommenced writing plays. Within this period she wrote three additional plays: Rattlesnake Sounds, Let's Hear It for the Queen, and Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne. In 1987 she wrote an adult novel titled Those Other People. This book is about a young man having to deal with his homosexuality and all the implications that are associated with it. The protagonist does not feel he has to proclaim his sexual identity after all; heterosexual individuals do not have to declare their preference. This novel concludes her writing career.
Her daughter, Jean, developed cancer and Childress nursed her until Jean's death in 1990. Four years later, Alice Childress died of cancer. Childress can best be described as a, "trailblazer for African-American women in drama, ahead of her more famous peer Lorraine Hansberry, for her creation of a catalog of leading characters." (Women in World History 682)
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. "Alice Childress," in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. ed. Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
Commire, Anne, et at., eds. Women In World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. 3 vol. Detroit: Yorkin Publishers/Gale Group, 1999.
Jennings, La Vinia Delois. Alice Childress. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Wiley, Catherine, "Whose Name, Whose Protection: Reading Alice Childress's Wedding Band," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon. ed. June Schlueter Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, 185-186.
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: Alice Childress." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap8/childress.html (provide page date or date of your login).
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