Telling the truth: Alice Childress as theorist and playwright.

Author:Dugan, Olga

In Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (1988), Elizabeth Brown-Guillory declared that "Alice Childress is the only black woman in America whose plays have been written, produced, and published over a period of four decades." (1) Childress wrote seventeen plays. Six have a history of both production and publication. (2) Four of these plays, appearing on stage between 1949 and 1969 when she was writing and working exclusively in and for the American theatre, have procured for her many coveted awards, and great visibility. But it is still the norm to walk into popular bookstores and not see any plays by Alice Childress on the shelves. And it is possible to finger through publishers' catalogues under author, title, or subject and not find a listing for Childress, or discover that the few single editions of her plays have long been and remain out of print. This should not be since over the last twenty years, Childress's plays have been important subject matter for critical evaluation of th e history of dramatic literature in the United States.

Through historical-critical analysis of modern American drama in general and of black drama in particular, as well as black feminist criticism, feminist theories of dramatic criticism, and a resurgent wave of curricular inclusion of "drama as literature," critics have analyzed Childress's plays ultimately as "literature to be performed." But they also maintain in their analyses the fabulist view of the playwright as a storyteller, as an interpreter of reality. In their works, Samuel Hay, C. W. E. Bigsby, Carlton and Barbara Molette, Mance Williams, Genevieve Fabre, Emory Lewis, and Loften Mitchell reevaluate the themes of racial injustice and the struggle for human rights at the center of the stories Childress's plays tell. (3) They all conclude that critics need to reconsider her plays as serious contributions to the literary and theatrical histories of how drama functions in American culture and society. (4)

Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Margaret B. Wilkerson, John O. Killens, Trudier Harris, Rosemary Curb, and Jeanne-Marie A. Miller have written books and articles examining the generation of Childress's strong black female protagonists, and her subjectivity of black women's issues concerning legal, educational, social, political, and economic struggle in this country. These scholars link Childress's plays to a literary tradition of black women writers from the New Negro Renaissance to modern and contemporary movements. (5)

In the same vein, Gayle Austin, Helene Keyssar, and Janet Brown explore plot and theme as ideological structures of a feminist premise and method of presentation in drama. They include Childress's plays among those of women dramatists from the United States and Europe in studies that reveal a dialogue on the "political poetics" of women's drama. (6)

Finally, anthologists Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Margaret B. Wilkerson, Man Evans, James V. Hatch and Ted Shine, and Lindsay Patterson reveal Childress's significance as a dramatic theorist and consummate craftsperson. Moreover, these anthologists have made the plays, at least those already previously published and produced, available for study that has led to a number of academic essays and doctoral theses. (7)

This writer aligns herself with the scholars, teachers, and playwrights who have given voice to the demand for a critical hearing, long overdue for African American theorist and playwright Alice Childress, and her contributions to American drama. In 1993, just a year before her death, when I told Ms. Childress personally about my own literary historical studies of the plays, she only smiled at me and replied firmly, "tell the truth." I have taken up the challenge to do so. In this article I discuss a theory of black self-determinist theatre that emerges from the essays Childress wrote over two decades. This theory establishes the central theme of black self-determination in Wine in the Wilderness, representative of the three other plays, Florence, Trouble in Mind, and Wedding Band, that account for the greater portion of Childress's significant contributions to the history of American drama and to the African American intellectual tradition. (8)


Alice Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina on October 20, 1920. When her parents separated, the five-year-old went to live with her maternal grandmother in Harlem. Eliza Campbell raised and befriended her granddaughter, and she also helped to educate the mind and spirit of the young writer who had yet to discover her potential. At Public School 81, Julia Ward Howe Junior High School, and Wadleigh High School, Childress received a typical public education, but she was no typical student. Even then she was developing her convictions about writing. Childress left high school after only three years of study. The deaths of her grandmother and mother forced her to continue her education at the public library and work to make ends meet. She also began the struggle to become an actress. Her training was not formal, but on-the-job.

Childress began acting when she joined such future theatrical legends as Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in helping Abram Hill and Frederick O'Neal establish the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in the 1940s. Her experience with ANT laid the foundation for the twenty years in which she was most active as a playwright in the legitimate theatre. She underwent a "conversion experience" largely due to the racism that crippled the company. In "A Candle in a Gale Wind," Childress presented a brief account of the ordeal that made her a writer with a vision: "I had started a 'career' as an actress with the American Negro Theatre, went to Broadway with Anna Lucasta, was nominated for a Tony Award. Radio and television work followed, but racism, a double black-listing system, and a feeling of being somewhat alone in my ideas caused me to know I could more freely express myself as a writer" (115). (9) Childress recognized a calling in her talent as a writer, and she determined to write plays that vindicate black people.

With ANT's production of Florence in Harlem in 1949, and its publication in 1950, Childress began her professional career as a playwright. As Samuel Hay writes in African American Theatre, Florence "radically altered the African American 'Mama' stereotype" (26). Mrs. Whitney, "Mama" in the play, became a prototype for the black heroines Childress created over the next two decades. The playwright's primary goal was to redress the black image, especially of women, on and off national and international stages Childress wrote Florence in keeping with principles of content, form, and commitment to which she remained true throughout the years she focused on playwriting.

Childress's grandmother, and the years she spent at the library trying to read at least two books a day, provided her with a material and spiritual education that influenced her principles of writing. Eliza Campbell taught Childress that observing was not enough, that she should write down the "thoughts" she found "worthy" of "keeping" ("Candle": 114). She did so and eventually found writing to be a way of putting her world into perspective, of taking control of how she expressed herself in it.

At the public library, Childress read and evaluated form ("Candle": 115). Knowing the "difference of structure in plays, books, short stories," and so on taught her how to use conventional elements and themes to accommodate her "own thought and structure patterns." She also became acquainted with works that would profoundly influence her understanding of literature, especially drama, as a vital tool for social change. Alongside the Bible, books on African American history, and Shakespeare, she read and studied the drama, novels, and poetry of others who had long committed themselves and their art to telling the truth. She aligned herself with Walt Whitman and Paul Laurence Dunbar, who "approached ordinary people with admiration and respect because these poets realized that every human being has endless possibilities." She also admired Sean O'Casey and Sholem Aleichem, who "celebrated the poor Irish and the poor Jews, as Paul Laurence Dunbar honored the poor Black slave through love, understanding and truth" ("Human Condition": 10). Each of these writers had what Childress called "an urge to mold clay" or a sense of drama that made them dramatists, which they put to use in creating art dedicated to the common desire for all oppressed peoples--liberation.

Childress's on-the-job training was rounded off by her experiences in other branches of the theatre. She excelled in administrative positions. As co-founder of ANT, she served as a theatre consultant. As a co-founder of The Harlem Theatre Movement, she sat on its board of directors. Furthermore, she was a key member of the Author's League of the Dramatist Guild, acting in negotiations to establish equity standards for actor's salaries in off-Broadway productions. Childress affiliated herself with the Harlem Writer's Guild and the New Dramatists in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally as a scholar and historian of dramatic literature, she wrote proposals and received grants from the John Golden Fund for playwrights in 1957 and the Rockefeller Foundation. And in 1968, she held an appointment at the Harvard-Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. Much of the time Childress might have called "spare," she spent lecturing and attending conferences as a keynote speaker on drama. But for all of her accomplishments, it was as a drama theorist and playwright that she came nearest her goal to help provide useful theatre by, for, and about black people. (10)


Childress's theory of black self-determinist theatre begins and ends with her views on the meaning and function of theatre for African Americans. (11) Written between 1951 and 1969, her seminal...

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