Alice Childress’ Plays Offer Indispensable Insight into Black Lives

Alice Childress on stage. Image courtesy of New Perspectives Theatre

“Any list of great American playwrights is incomplete without Alice Childress (65) — her cool eye saw deep into history, into the theater, into blackness, into whiteness,” writes MacDowell Fellow Helen Shaw (14) in a January 2020 essay for Vulture, New York magazine’s online culture space. “Everyone should be reviving Childress’ work. The dramas are powerful body blows full of beautifully observed human detail, hard swings in several genres.”

Childress was born in 1916 in Charleston, S.C., and after her parents separated when she was nine, she moved to Harlem to live with her grandmother, the daughter of a slave, who encouraged her to read and write. The author later dropped out of high school when her grandmother died, but went on to study at the American Negro Theatre and performed there for 11 years, winning acclaim as an actress.

In 1949 she wrote the one-act play Florence, which she directed and starred in. It reflected the themes she explored throughout her writing career: the empowerment of black women, interracial politics, and working-class life. Childress' first full-length, dramatic play, Trouble in Mind – about racism in the theater world – was produced at Stella Holt's Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955 and ran for 91 performances. Her next dramatic work, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, which Shaw says, “feels very much like a precursor to Jeremy O. Harris’ (15) Slave Play,” was written in 1962, but no Broadway producers would touch it. It portrays the struggles of an interracial couple and, according to Chicago Reader critic Tony Adler, contains “a series of the most nakedly savage, laceratingly honest speeches about America's racial psychosis that [he’s] heard uttered on a stage.”

Childress was 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 starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Her 1979 novel A Short Walk was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Read Helen Shaw’s essay “Alice Childress Didn’t Defang Her Plays, and Producers Said No”

Read Selected Plays of Alice Childress

Alice Childress's papers (PDF) are archived at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Put It All On the Table with Valerie Curtis-Newton

Valerie Curtis-Newton's speech on the power of the maid, and playwright Alice Childress.

Trouble in Mind

Full production at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in 2017.

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White

This is an Oberlin College rehearsal documentary with student interviews.

Working in the Theatre #119 with Alice Childress

American Theatre Wing Seminars CUNY TV production: The panel includes Alice Childress

Valerie Curtis-Newton reads Alice Childress from the novel "Like One of the Family"

The novel provides historical context for Kathryn Stockett's novel, "The Help."