Florence By Alice Childress Essays

For the Ben Folds Five song, see Alice Childress (song).

Alice Childress (October 12, 1916[1] – 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."[2] Childress described her writing 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]

Early years[edit]

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.[6] 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.[7] She became involved in theater immediately after her high school and she did not attend college.[8]

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).[8] 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;[9] 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.[10]

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][11]

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.[12] The success of these plays enabled her to bring Harlem’s first all-union off-Broadway contracts into practice.[13]

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,[2] making Childress the first African-American woman to be awarded the honor.[11]

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.[14]

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.[15][16]

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.[9]

Personal life[edit]

She had used the names Louise Henderson and Alice Herndon[17] before her marriage in 1934 to actor Alvin Childress. They had a daughter together, Jean R. Childress, and divorced in 1957,[18] when musician Nathan Woodard became her second husband.[3][11]

She died of cancer, aged 77, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York.[13][17] At the time of her death she was working on a story about her African great-grandmother, who had been a slave,[19] and her Scots-Irish great-grandmother.[20]

Awards[edit]

  • 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

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)
  • 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)

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.[21]

Childress was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.[22]

References[edit]

  1. ^PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide
  2. ^ abcdMary 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. ^ abcd"Alice Childress", Black History Now.
  4. ^ abMargaret 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. ^Biography Today: Author Series. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc. 1996. p. 18. ISBN 0-7808-0014-1. 
  7. ^Biography Today, p. 18.
  8. ^ abBiography Today, p. 19.
  9. ^ abSue Woodman, Obituary of Alice Childress - "A testimonial to black America", The Guardian, September 14, 1994.
  10. ^Stephen Bourne, "Obituary: Alice Childress", The Independent, August 29, 1994.
  11. ^ abcGranshaw, Michelle, "Childress, Alice (1916-1994)", BlackPast.org.
  12. ^The New York Public Library Performing Arts Desk Reference. New York: Macmillan. 1994. p. 12. ISBN 0-02-861447-X. 
  13. ^ abAlice Sussman, "Alice Childress 1920–1994", Contemporary Black Biography, 1997, Encyclopedia.com.
  14. ^Biography Today, pp. 19-20.
  15. ^Biography Today, p. 20.
  16. ^"Notes Taken at Fisk Writers Conference", Negro Digest, June 1966, p. 90.
  17. ^ ab"Alice Childress Biography", Bio.
  18. ^"Trouble in Mind Notes", The Actors Company Theatre.
  19. ^Jen N. Fluke, Alice Childress Biography, Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota, February 28, 2003.
  20. ^Sheila Rule, "Alice Childress, 77, a Novelist; Drew Themes From Black Life", The New York Times, August 19, 1994.
  21. ^iTunes Originals interview with Ben Folds.
  22. ^Harding, Lakeisha, "Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. (1922- )", BlackPast.org.

External links[edit]

Alice Childress 1920–1994

American dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, prose writer, editor, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Childress's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 12, 15, and 86.

Childress is considered a pivotal yet critically neglected figure in contemporary black American literature. Because she wrote about such topics as miscegenation and teenage drug abuse, some of Childress's works have been banned from schools and libraries in various regions. In her dramas as well as in her novels for children and adults, Childress drew upon her own experiences and created relatively normal, everyday protagonists. She explained in a 1984 essay entitled "A Candle in a Gale Wind": "My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary…. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."

Biographical Information

Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but grew up in Harlem in New York City. She was raised primarily by her grandmother, who was an early influence on her writing. Childress noted in a 1987 interview: "[My grandmother] used to sit at the window and say, 'There goes a man. What do you think he's thinking?' I'd say, 'I don't know. He's going home to his family.'… When we'd get to end of our game, my grandmother would say to me, 'Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep.'" Childress attended high school for two years but left before graduation. She held several jobs while acting as a member of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem; as part of the company, she performed in A Midsummer-Night's Dream and other works. Childress was also in the original cast of Anna Lucasta on Broadway, yet she found acting unfulfilling. She commented: "Racial prejudice was such that I was considered 'too light' to play my real self and they would not cast light-skinned blacks in white roles. I realized I had to have some other way of creating." She began to write dramas, later attributing this decision in part to her grandmother. "I never planned to become a writer, I never finished high school," she wrote in her 1984 essay. "Time, events, and Grandmother Eliza's brilliance taught me to rearrange circumstances into plays, stories, novels, scenarios and teleplays."

Major Works

In 1949 Childress's first play, Florence, was produced. The setting is a railway station waiting room divided into a "white" and a "colored" section. Mama sits on the colored side; she is going north to retrieve her daughter, Florence, who is trying unsuccessfully to act in New York City. Mrs. Carter is a white woman in the other section who tries to show Mama that she is not racist. Mama finds this claim to be false when she asks Mrs. Carter to use her influence to help Florence, only to have Mrs. Carter volunteer to ask one of her friends, a stage director, to hire Florence as a domestic. Trouble in Mind (1955) is a play about a group of actors rehearsing Chaos in Belleville, a fictional drama with an anti-lynching message. One of the black performers, Wiletta Mayer, refuses to obey the director, who wants Wiletta's character to put her own son into the hands of a crowd that is sure to lynch him. Wiletta contends that the director is forcing her character to act illogically, thus reinforcing a negative image of blacks. Wiletta's challenge to the director causes most of the troupe to question their own roles in Chaos in Belleville. In one version of the drama, Wiletta leads a cast walkout and the director demands a script revision in the finale, in another, Wiletta loses her part. Although Trouble in Mind was optioned for Broadway, Childress would not consent to the changes that producers wanted to make in the script, and it was never produced there. Wedding Band (1966), which focuses on South Carolina's anti-miscegenation laws and an interracial love affair, was both controversial and difficult to produce. Despite praise accorded to its initial 1966 production in Michigan, Wedding Band did not reach a wider audience until 1973, when it was performed in New York. In the play, Julia, a thirty-five-year-old black seamstress, celebrates the ten-year anniversary of her common-law marriage to Herman, a forty-year-old white baker. He gives her a wedding band to wear on a chain around her neck until they can be legally married in another state. They are never married, for Herman contracts influenza. In Wedding Band, Childress revealed racism in all characters, not just against blacks but also against Germans, Chinese, and others. Wine in the Wilderness (1969) is about intraracial hostilities and prejudices. In it Tomorrow-Marie, called Tommy, affirms that she is not a "messed-up chick" as artist Bill would like to paint her, but the "wine in the wilderness," his image of the majestic "Mother Africa." Although Childress devoted most of her career to drama, she was also a noted author of children's literature. She wrote two plays and three novels for children, including A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and Rainbow Jordan (1981). By far her best-known work, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is the story of thirteen-year-old Benjie Johnson's emerging addiction to heroin. His story is told from many points of view, including those of his stepfather, teachers, and pusher. Rainbow Jordan is another unflinching look at adolescence, from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl trying to create stability in her turbulent life. Childress's last published work was another children's novel, Those Other People (1989), concerning a young boy's coming to terms with his homosexuality and its impact on his family.

Critical Reception

Childress was instrumental in the genesis of black theater in America and throughout her career remained a vital, uncompromising force in contemporary drama. Her plays and children's books have received much praise, yet many critics believe her work deserves even more attention and recognition. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory asserted in Phylon that Childress's plays "beg for scholarship" and described Childress as "a playwright whose dramaturgical advances have paved the way for women in the theatre." Although Florence was produced on a small scale in Harlem, the critical praise it received launched Childress's career. With Gold through the Trees (1952), she became the first black woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage, and with Trouble in Mind she was the first woman to win an Obie Award for best original off-Broadway play. A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich was Childress's most controversial work and accounted for the majority of her critical attention. Despite overwhelming praise for its realistic treatment of a sensitive issue, several school districts banned A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, apparently on the grounds that the theme of the work was inappropriate for young readers. Childress encountered similar resistance to her plays as well; for instance, the state of Alabama refused to air Wine in the Wilderness when it was produced for television. Childress commented on the reception of her works in her 1984 essay: "I do not consider my work controversial, as it is not at all contrary to humanism."

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