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To Inspire, Lift, and Liberate—the Enduring Vision of Alice Childress

Arminda Thomas February 24, 2021

Alice Childress. Photo courtesy of Arminda Thomas.

Announcing her death in 1994, the New York Times headline read, “Alice Childress, 77, a Novelist,” though the full obituary allowed that she also wrote some plays. While Childress would likely have objected to that order, having devoted the bulk of her life to playwriting, the paper of record’s choice is understandable. As a playwright, Childress’s story is more difficult to measure: hers was a progressive voice too often hemmed in by anxious, benighted producers; a mainstage talent shoehorned into black box realities.

The story began, promisingly enough, at a little Harlem theater with a big mission, the American Negro Theatre—a company so hardworking members called themselves the ANTs, and were expected to function as actors, directors, designers, and box office managers. "The American Negro Theatre Company," Childress recalled, "worked ten years without salary, four nights per week, keeping the same acting company together, until the boot-straps wore out." [i] When Childress expressed her discontent with the quality of the material in general and with the quality of roles for women past the ingénue stage in particular, her colleagues (including fellow ANT Sidney Poitier) challenged her to write it herself. She came in the next day with her first play, Florence—a gem of a piece centered around a character who would seldom be granted more than a line or two in most plays of that era. From the beginning, her work displayed her talent for marrying rich, layered characterization and sharp insight into the political forces shaping those characters.

After ANT disbanded, Childress along with several members joined forces with the Committee for the Negro in the Arts to keep providing opportunities for African American artists and audiences at Club Baron, a Harlem nightclub-turned-community theatre. Her pieces written for this venue spoke to the struggle for freedom (in the US and in Africa), while incorporating song, dance, and live music—a combination that was popular both with the crowds and the few critics who made the trip uptown. "Alice Childress seems to know more about language and drama than most people who write for theatre today," wrote Freedom magazine's reviewer Lorraine Hansberry in 1952.

“It’s the man’s theater, the man’s money, so what you gonna do?” (Wiletta, Trouble in Mind)

Then came Childress’s first big break. Greenwich Mews, a downtown theatre with a progressive cachet, had an open slot in their 1955–56 season. Childress had the play to fill it—her first full-length play, Trouble in Mind, about an interracial cast and crew who come together to produce a play about racial injustice in the South and instead find themselves caught up in racial tensions of their own. The Greenwich Mews producers snapped it up.

Soon, however, Childress found her play hitting uncomfortably close to home. Deep into the rehearsal process, the producers became uncomfortable with the play’s ending and demanded that Childress craft a more hopeful resolution, with a unified cast and a redemptive arc for the play's antagonist (a liberal, white director). It was a resolution Childress could not believe in, but—faced with the prospect of scrapping the production so close to opening—she acquiesced. The play was a hit, with mostly positive reviews (though some made a point of objecting to the “claptrap” ending) and sold-out audiences. Even better, Broadway producers came knocking, and soon it was announced that Alice Childress would be the first African American woman to be produced on the Great White Way.

That announcement, however, turned out to be premature. The new would-be producers, had more conditions (including a new title), and demanded still more rewrites, until the playwright “couldn’t recognize the play one way or the other.” After two years, Childress withdrew the play and restored her original ending for publication. Also premature was the New York Times’s report heralding a Broadway production of her next big work, Wedding Band, which had been optioned immediately after its first reading in 1963 for production the next year. Those plans also fell through. And though the play was produced in Michigan and in Chicago—and optioned for Broadway seven times—it took nearly a decade to reach New York. The subject matter was controversial, certainly, but the sticking point seemed to be remarkably similar to the one that stopped her earlier piece: not enough attention being paid to the (white, male) lover, too much Black everywoman at the center.

Childress in Anna Lucasta. Photo courtesy of Arminda Thomas. 

“The Black writer explains pain to those who inflict it. Those who repress and exclude us also claim the right to instruct us on how best to react to repression. All too often we follow their advice.” (Childress, 1984) [ii]

The latter half of the 1960s saw a resurgence of Black theatres across the nation—at least five sprang up in New York City, alone. In the years before Wedding Band found a New York home, Childress had three new plays produced: two at New Heritage Repertory Company, one at the Negro Ensemble Company. While still deeply personal, deeply political, and deeply committed to telling Black women’s stories, Childress’s new works shifted these women away from the terrain of interracial relations to explore more fully the navigation of class, gender, and racism-related tensions within African American communities.

From the beginning of her career, Childress had advocated for “a Negro People’s Theatre…powerful enough to inspire, lift, and eventually create a complete desire for the liberation of all oppressed peoples,” and if her rhetoric tempered, her belief in the necessity of Black theatres remained firm. Still, she was sometimes frustrated by the constraints of writing to fit into the venues in which those companies operated. “I like writing full-length plays,” she confessed, “but I saw a need for short plays, because so many little theatres in black communities…need for many reasons, which we can understand, short plays. And also they kept writing me for something for their group of eight people to do or that they had forty minutes on a program or they had an hour.”[iii] It was, perhaps, this need to write as expansively as she craved, without having to compromise her vision, which led Childress to take up novel writing. And while Childress never stopped writing or identifying as a playwright, it is nevertheless true that her second path garnered her the attention and acclaim she so richly deserved.

Trouble in Mind is part of A.C.T's Out Loud reading series.

[i] Alice Childress, “But I Do My Thing,” New York Times, February 2, 1969

[ii] Alice Childress, “A Candle in a Gale Wind,” in Mari Evans, Black Women Writers (New York, Harbor), 113

[iii] Quoted in Childress, Selected Plays, xxviii