Childress's first play, Florence, a one-act play given her mother's name, was written in 1949 but not published until the following year in Masses & Mainstream (October 1950), a predominately communist magazine that published African American literature. Childress produced the first performance of Florence at the American Negro Theatre in New York City in 1949. The setting for the play is a segregated railroad station in which a black woman and a white woman wait for a train to take them to New York City. The play focuses on the corrosive effects of racism and stereotyping and how prevalent they were during this period. Childress uses realism to depict the prejudices that many white people had about African Americans. She also challenges ideas about what should constitute a suitable career for African American women. Florence's mother, who initially does not support her daughter's dream of becoming an actress in New York, changes her mind about her daughter's career when she is faced with the racial stereotypes put forth by a white woman. The white woman, Mrs. Carter, is so firmly entrenched in her own vision of the truth that she has no interest in learning that she is wrong. Childress's first play also reveals the difficulties that black actors face when trying to find work in the white-dominated theatrical world. Florence was first presented off Broadway by the American Negro Theatre. Childress directed and starred in this first production of the play. Florence is available in Wines in the Wilderness:
Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present (1990), edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
Alice Childress was born either October 12, 1916, or October 12, 1920, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her birth name might have been either Herndon or Henderson, and it is thought that her mother's name was Florence. While the facts surrounding her birth and parentage are in doubt, what is known is that as a small child she was taken to New York to be raised by her grandmother. Childress, who dropped out of high school after two years, was raised in Harlem in New York City by her grandmother, Eliza Campbell. Campbell had only an elementary school education, but she was an accomplished story-teller whose talent sparked in Childress an early interest in telling stories. Although her formal education ended early, after her grandmother's death in the early 1930s, Childress continued to educate herself during hours spent reading at the public library. She was married to Alvin Childress during the 1930s, with whom she had a daughter, Jean. Childress was very private about her personal life, so little is known about her relationships or her daughter, but it is known that the couple divorced after Alvin took an acting job on television and moved to Hollywood. Childress would later marry Nathan Woodard in 1957.
Childress had joined the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem when she was twenty, with an appearance in On Strivers's Row. Childress was an actress and director with ANT for ten years and appeared in some of their biggest hits, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, Natural Man, and Anna Lucasta. She wrote her first play, Florence, in 1949. This one-act play examines the prejudice of both white and black people and establishes the direction many of Childress's subsequent plays would take. She followed this early success with another play, Just A Little Simple (1950), an adaptation of the Langston Hughes novel, Simple Speaks His Mind. Childress's third play, written in 1952, Gold Through the Trees, became the first play by a black woman to be professionally produced on the American stage. Childress's next play, Trouble in Mind (1955), focused on a topic she knew well—the difficulties black women face as actresses. This play was very successful, and Childress became the first woman to win the Village Voice Obie Award, for the best original off-Broadway play of the 1955-1956 season. A revised edition of this play was published in Black Theatre: A Twentieth-Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights.
Childress next composed Wedding Band (1966) and Wine in the Wilderness. The latter was written for public television in 1969 and was the first play broadcast by WGBS Boston as part of the series "On Being Black." This was followed by another one-act play, String (1969), which was an adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant short story, "A Piece of String." Another one-act play, Mojo: A Black Love Story, followed in 1970.
Childress continued to write plays, including two for children—When the Rattlesnake Sounds (1975) and Let's Hear It for the Queen (1976). Childress also wrote several novels. The first, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life (1956), was based on conversations Page 112 | Top of Articlewith black domestic workers. She also wrote several novels for young adults, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973), A Short Walk (1979), Rainbow Jordan (1981), and Those Other People (1989). Childress received several awards, including the first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1993, Childress received the Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Childress was working on a memoir about her great-grandmother, who was born a slave, when she died of cancer on August 14, 1994, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York.
Florence opens as a middle-aged black woman walks on stage and sits down on a bench on the "Colored" side of the railway station waiting room. A low railing separates the setting into a "White" waiting room and a "Colored" waiting room. A young black woman follows behind the older woman and immediately begins to chide the older woman about their early arrival. The younger woman is Marge, who tells her mother that she must force Florence, Marge's sister, to come back home because her son needs her. Mama and Marge also exchange some words about the rent, which is going to be late because the money is being used to try and bring Florence home. Marge reminds Mama to eat the lunch that was packed for her and buy coffee for her lunch before she boards the train, since black passengers are not permitted to enter the dining car. Before she leaves the station, Marge tells Mama that Florence must be forced to return home. Mama reminds Marge that Florence was in a play for two weeks, but Marge replies that her sister's role was as a maid, which only reinforces Marge's argument that there is no future for a black woman as an actress. After Marge leaves, the porter walks in and begins to mop the floor on the white side of the waiting room. He asks Mama if she is going on a trip. When Mama replies that she is going to New York to see Florence, the porter responds that his son in Atlanta saw Florence in a colored film. This is further evidence that Florence has had some success as an actress. The porter next warns Mama that if she needs to go the bathroom, she must use the colored men's bathroom, since the bathroom for colored women is out of order.
At that moment a well-dressed white woman, Mrs. Carter, comes rushing in and immediately begins to give the porter orders, addressing him as "Boy!" After being reassured that the porter will watch her bags, Mrs. Carter sits down on the white side of the waiting room. Mrs. Carter begins to speak to Mama and explains that after only two days in this small town, she is bored and eager to return home. She insults Mama by asking if she lives in the small town that has her "bored to tears." Mrs. Carter explains that she has only come south to cheer up her brother, whose most recent novel has earned such poor reviews that he has given up writing. When Mama explains that she has never heard of this novel, Mrs. Carter begins to explain the plot, which involves a light-skinned Negro woman who is smart and ambitious but who commits suicide because she is not white. Mrs. Carter explains that all blacks are filled with self-hate because they are not white. When Mama challenges this view of blacks, providing examples of light-skinned blacks who are quite happy and successful, Mrs. Carter abruptly stops the conversation and insists that the subject is too controversial to discuss with a black woman. Mrs. Carter seems genuinely distressed to have upset Mama and tries to reassure her that she is not a racist. She even claims to have "eaten with Negroes." When Mama begins to ignore Mrs. Carter, the white woman sits for a few minutes pretending to read a book, but soon enough she tries again to engage Mama in conversation. In response to Mama's explanation that she is going to New York City to see her daughter, Florence, who is performing on the stage, Mrs. Carter assumes that Florence is a singer, saying, "You people have such a gift" for spirituals. When Mrs. Carter learns that Florence is a dramatic actress, she begins to express pity for Florence, whom she thinks must be pathetically depressed over having chosen a career at which she cannot possibly succeed. Mrs. Carter is also an actress, and she has not had much success. She cannot conceive of the possibility that a black woman could have either talent or success.
When Mrs. Carter brags about all her contacts on the stage, Mama asks if there is any way that the woman can help Florence. Mrs. Carter is quick to say yes and explains that she can get Florence work with a woman who is a writer Page 113 | Top of Articleand director. Mama is excited until she learns that the work Mrs. Carter is proposing for Florence is as a domestic servant, cleaning house. At this point, Mama becomes so upset that she grasps Mrs. Carter by the arm, alarming the white woman, who suddenly understands that she has upset Mama but does not know how. Mama tells Mrs. Carter that she should go back over to the white side of the waiting room, and Mrs. Carter quickly retreats into the "White ladies" bathroom. Just then the porter enters to tell Mama that the train is almost at the station. Mama writes something on a piece of paper and puts the note and the check that she was carrying to pay for Florence's return ticket home from New York into an envelope. She asks the porter to mail the envelope for her and tells him that the note to Florence tells her to "keep trying." The play ends as Mama leaves the stage.
The porter has one foot in the white world and one foot in the black world. By virtue of his job, he moves across the color barrier and the Jim Crow laws that separate white from black. He tells Mama that the bathroom for black women is out of order and that she must use the bathroom for black men, since the law forbids her to use the bathroom for white women. His role is to maintain order, as defined by law, but there is never any doubt that he belongs on the black side of the line. While he is permitted to walk on the white side of the waiting room, he only does so to mop the floors, and when Mrs. Carter enters, she addresses him imperiously as "Boy!" This is clearly a derogatory address for a man who is described as being about fifty years old.
Mrs. Carter is a white woman. She sees herself as tolerant and liberal in her thinking, but her words define her as a racist. She refers to the porter, a man many years her senior, as "boy." Her examples of tolerance include having "eaten with Negros." Mrs. Carter worries about her brother, who is an unsuccessful novelist. He writes about a culture that he neither understands nor is capable of experiencing, which may be why his books do not sell. Mrs. Carter fails to understand that merely observing a different world does not make the observer an authority. Mama tries to explain that the story Mrs. Carter's brother is telling is not true, but Mrs. Carter rejects this explanation. Mrs. Carter cannot accept that a black woman could know more than her white brother. Mrs. Carter's offer to find Florence a position as a domestic reflects her conviction that if a white woman cannot succeed as an actress, a black woman certainly cannot succeed. Mrs. Carter has no interest in hearing the truth and is blind to her own racism. The depth of her racist ideology is further seen in that the job she presumes is most appropriate for a young black woman is that of a domestic servant. Mrs. Carter genuinely believes that she is doing a good deed in arranging for a black woman to work as a servant. She understands the laws that separate black and white people and is unwilling to challenge those laws.
Although Florence never appears in the play, she is the focus of Mama's journey and the reason Mama is sitting in the train station. Florence is a young widow who moved to New York to try and find success as an actress. Although she has not yet achieved stardom, Florence has achieved some small successes on the stage, a fact that encourages her to remain in New York, but she continues to need her mother's financial assistance to survive. Mama explains to the audience that Florence has not felt right about living in the South since her husband was murdered when he tried to vote. Because her husband died while trying to fight injustice, Florence feels she cannot accept the discrimination that black people have been forced to endure for so long. Florence knows that it is only by challenging oppression that black Americans will be able to have the same opportunities as white Americans. Florence is more courageous than her sister Marge and is willing to take risks that her sister will not take.
Mama is on her way to New York City to bring her daughter Florence home. She is a strong black woman who is not intimidated either by her daughter Marge or by the white woman, Mrs. Carter. When they first arrive at the railway station, Marge speaks to her mother as if she is so naïve and inexperienced that she cannot be trusted to travel by herself to New York. Ironically, Mama tolerates all this mothering from Marge because Page 114 | Top of ArticleMarge is her daughter, but Mama grows less patient with every new warning and bit of advice. She finally complains that Marge is treating her like she is "a northern greenhorn." Mama remains polite, but her responses to Marge suggest that she is ready for her daughter to return home, which is exactly what Mama encourages Marge to do. Mama is also polite to Mrs. Carter, even though the woman is insulting and racially insensitive. Only in her conversation with the porter does Mama appear to relax. Their conversation is natural and easy. If Mama seems only slightly impatient with Marge, she is less reticent when confronted with Mrs. Carter's racism. Mama is brave enough to contradict the stereotypes that Mrs. Carter offers about black women. Mama is not at all intimidated by the white woman, who breezes into the station wearing furs and jewelry, which she dumps casually on the bench. Mama remains polite and in control until Mrs. Carter insults Florence by offering to find her a job as a domestic servant, as if that is the only job for which a young black woman is qualified. Mama then grabs Mrs. Carter by the arm and tells her to return to her side of the waiting room. Such an action takes courage and strength.
Marge is Florence's sister. Although the audience never meets Florence, she is clearly a contrast to her sister, Marge. Marge thinks she must accept her place as a black woman living in a segregated world, while Florence challenges the notion that she cannot succeed in the career she has chosen. Marge wants Florence to return to the South and give up her dream of succeeding in a career dominated by white people. Marge has been helping her mother raise Florence's child, since the young widow moved to New York, but now Marge argues that the child needs his mother. She rejects the idea that Florence might be happier or more successful away from home. When Mama reminds Marge that Florence has not felt right about living in the South since her husband was murdered when he tried to vote, Marge responds that other people do not feel right about living in the South and that Florence would not feel right no matter where she lived because "she must think she's white!" These words reveal that Marge does not understand her sister's need to fight against a system of oppression. Marge has no desire to challenge her role in the world. She does not understand why Florence would apply for a job at a department store that does not hire black people for positions that deal with the public; she does not understand that it is only by challenging oppression that circumstances will change. Marge is not as brave as Florence. Marge lacks her sister's courage and instead focuses on forcing Florence to accept the rules that define black people as lesser human beings.
Limitations and Opportunities
The characters in Florence are constrained by racist laws that limit their opportunities for change. Marge sees herself as unable to change either herself or the world in which she lives. Racism has created emotional and mental limitations that have convinced Marge that she must continue to know her place and not try to resist or challenge the status quo. In a real sense, Mrs. Carter is also the victim of an oppressive society that makes her incapable of recognizing that her brother's failure to be a successful writer is also a result of laws and customs that oppress black people, while creating an artificial view of a world that is not real. Mrs. Carter's brother romanticizes racist images to such a degree that he limits his own success as a novelist. While Mama initially seems to accept the limitations placed on black people, by the end of the play she is in agreement with Florence. She understands that the only way to change a racist world is to challenge racism and thus force white people to acknowledge the rights of black people to have the same opportunities as those provided to white people.
The title of Childress's play is named after one of Mama's daughters, Florence, but the character for whom the play is titled never appears. The play is only peripherally about Florence Whitney. The play is about racism. Racism lies at the center of a law that prevents blacks and whites from crossing the artificially constructed line that keeps these two groups separate in the American South. Childress uses her play as a way to examine how legal authority and social custom serve as forces to maintain racism within society. The actions and words of the characters Page 115 | Top of Articlereveal that racism is more than white oppression of black people. When Marge expresses her belief that black people need to know their own place, she is helping to maintain the racism that oppresses her. Racism is also denoted by the separate but unequal bathroom signs designated for white and black use. The bathroom for black women is labeled "Colored women," while the bathroom for white women is labeled "White ladies." The implication is clear—black women are not ladies. Because the bathroom for black women is out of order, Mama is told she must use the bathroom for black men, even though doing so is humiliating. She may also lose the sense of personal space and privacy that women expect in using a public restroom.
Mrs. Carter tells Mama that her brother has written a novel, which has not been reviewed favorably by the critics. Her brother is so discouraged that he is no longer able to write. Mrs. Carter's brother has written a book based on stereotypes. She explains that her brother has written about Negroes, but upon hearing the description of the plot, Mama says that his work is not true. Mrs. Carter's brother cannot
know or understand the black experience because he cannot comprehend or identify with a world he has not experienced. The laws that separate blacks and whites also keep each group from each other's world. Because Mrs. Carter's brother cannot know what it means to be a black person, he is forced to rely upon stereotypes to construct his characters. As a result, his characters, for whom his sister claims her brother "suffers so," are not real enough to capture a reading audience. This would-be novelist creates a young black woman who is described as lovely, intelligent, and ambitious, but because she is not white, she kills herself. Readers are supposed to believe that this young woman, who wants to be a lawyer, is so ashamed of being black that she does not want to live. The novel is a failure because the stereotypical characters are so unreal. When Mama offers examples to support her argument that this fictional character is not based on reality, Mrs. Carter rejects the idea. All that she knows about black life is what she has learned from cultural stereotyping. She thinks that black women are satisfied to work as domestics, housekeepers, and servants, because that is how she and her friends employ them. Mrs. Carter cannot imagine that a young black woman can be a successful actress because it is so hard for a white woman to succeed on the stage. Mrs. Carter accepts the stereotypes that define black women as less talented and thus less successful than white women. Because legal traditions and social customs keep whites and blacks from intermingling, all that they can know about one another are the stereotypes of the past.
Realism is a literary movement that began in the nineteenth century and continued to influence literature in the twentieth century. In general, realism is an effort by a writer to depict a world honestly and truthfully. Realist writers usually depict the lives of ordinary people who struggle to survive in the lower or middle class. Such writers often espouse a democratic ideal, using realism as a way to argue for equality. Realists are concerned with ethical issues and with ordinary events. They often reject the traditional forms of a genre. For example, Childress rejects the traditional five-act play in favor of a one-act play that depicts the struggles this family faces against oppression and racism. There is no heroic sacrifice, just ordinary people doing what they must do to survive. Mama is not a dramatic hero. She is an ordinary mother who is willing to sacrifice to help her daughter. She does not have much money, and she will be late paying the rent because she is using the money to take the train to New York. Childress's point is that Mama is just like any other mother who sacrifices for her children. She suffers because her daughter lacks the opportunities that white daughters receive. She is a recognizable human being, the type of person that realism seeks to illuminate.
One-Act Dramatic Structure
Florence is a one-act play with prose dialogue, stage directions, and no interior dialogue. There are no soliloquies, and thus, the thoughts of the characters are reflected in their speeches, and all action must occur on stage. The actors address one another and not the audience. In ancient Greek plays the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and through the Renaissance, including Elizabethan playwrights such as William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of Page 117 | Top of Articledramatic action: exposition, complication or rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe or resolution. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when playwright Henrik Ibsen combined the last two acts into one act. During the twentieth century, audiences became more accustomed to three-act plays. One-act plays have been performed since the Greek period, but they were much less common then. Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, one-act plays have been more widespread. Early in the twentieth century they were associated with vaudeville and comedy, but more recently one-act plays have featured serious themes and are often presented with other one-act plays at a single performance.
Childress's one-act play mostly follows the traditional structure of dramatic action. The exposition is at the beginning of the play when the audience learns that Florence has left the South to escape memories of the death of her husband. She has had some success but is now in need of money to help her survive while she looks for more work. The complication or rising action occurs when Mrs. Carter and Mama clash over the notion that a black woman would kill herself because she is not white. The climax is the point of a drama when the action takes a dramatic turn. In this case, it occurs when Mama realizes that Mrs. Carter is offering a domestic job to Florence because she assumes that is the most suitable work for a black woman. The falling action signals the resolution of the plot. This occurs when Mama decides to send money to Florence and continue to support her efforts to escape the South. The catastrophe is usually the death of the hero, but there is no catastrophe in this play.
Jim Crow Laws
When Mama and Mrs. Carter are forced to sit in areas designated for "Colored" and for "Whites" and required to use bathrooms labeled for "White ladies" and "Colored women," they are experiencing laws and customs put in place through Jim Crow laws. The term Jim Crow is thought to have originated in a song by that name sung by black-face minstrels performing early in the nineteenth century. The term eventually became identified with state and local laws that mandated segregation in public facilities. These laws were first enacted after Civil War Reconstruction ended in 1876, at which point many southern states began to create laws that segregated black people. Some laws were designed to separate blacks from whites on public transportation, such as on trains, as Marge notes when she warns Mama that she will be unable to eat in the dining car on the train. In some states, miscegenation laws made it illegal for a black person to marry a white person. Poll taxes and literacy tests prevented many black citizens from voting. Sharecropping practices prevented black farmers from owning their own land, while separate school systems kept black children from receiving an education equal to that received by white children. Eventually, nearly all public facilities were segregated to keep black and white people apart. Public restaurants, theaters, drinking fountains, and bathrooms all contained restrictions against white and black people mingling together. Violence, most commonly lynching, prevented many black people from taking action against Jim Crow laws. A major step toward change came in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. However, schools would remain segregated for many more years. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought an end to legalized segregation.
Segregation in the New York Theater
Mama's daughter Florence is a struggling actress in New York. Her efforts mirror those of Childress, who was herself a struggling black actress. The primary venue for black actors at the time was the American Negro Theatre (ANT), which was a part of the Federal Theatre Project, a product of the Great Depression that was designed to create jobs. The depression of the 1930s created unemployment for white actors and stage workers, but the effect on black actors was more significant, simply because there were already far fewer opportunities for black actors and stage crew. In white productions, black actors were cast as domestic help or as slaves who loved their masters and thus were content with their lives. Most often, though, black people were depicted as comic figures, such as in minstrel shows. Dramas were written by white playwrights whose views of black life were skewed by their Page 118 | Top of Articleignorance of the real world. ANT was established in Harlem, New York, in 1940 as a way to train black actors and to provide them the opportunity to appear on stage in productions that would depict black life in the United States more accurately. ANT staged eighteen plays, including Anna Lucasta, which starred Childress. This play was so successful that it eventually was produced on Broadway, where it ran for more than 950 performances. ANT helped to launch the careers of Sidney Poitier, Ozzie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte, as well as many others. ANT also provided a forum for black playwrights, whose work was intended to depict the reality of black life. By the end of the 1940s, ANT was disbanded, and while there were more roles for black actors on the New York stage, the roles had not improved beyond the stereotypes of the past, which is why Childress began writing plays, including her first drama, Florence.
The New York theater world, and especially plays presented on Broadway or even Off Broadway, have always been eagerly watched and reviewed. Even during the 1940s, including the World War II years, New York theater productions were generally well reviewed—unless, of course, the play was presented at the American Negro Theatre. Plays written by black playwrights and starring black actors did not receive the kind of press coverage that greeted most other New York theater productions. Accordingly, there is little evidence of how Florence was greeted by the public. Moreover, little was written about Childress at her death in 1994. In a very brief obituary printed by the New York Times, Sheila Rule notes the controversies that surrounded some of Childress's work and that her children's book A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich has been the object of censorship by school districts. Childress's most famous play, Wedding Band, an inter-racial love story, was not produced in New York until several years after it was written in the early 1960s, due to the controversial nature of the subject. Rule, who lists Childress first as a novelist and actress and last as a playwright, provides little critical discussion of Childress's accomplishments or her contributions as an author.
It has been the province of literary critics, rather than theater critics, to assess Childress's legacy as a playwright and author. In an essay in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Samuel A. Hay writes that Florence is typical of Childress's plays in that the author is "interested in a well-crafted situation" and that she is capable of changing "her dramatic structure" to fit the requirements of plot. Both these comments suggest a playwright of considerable talent who possesses the knowledge to make the dramatic genre fulfill her needs. This ability, according to Hay, "sets Childress apart" from other playwrights. She is capable of switching the "protagonist-antagonist functions" and of creating "several other revolutionary changes in order to support her political and ethical concerns." Childress, then, fits a tradition of playwrights who are capable of crafting "well-structured plays which aim to show how things ought to be, or where they have gone wrong." Page 120 | Top of ArticleThis is, of course, what Childress does in Florence when she shows that racism cannot be defeated until people are able to recognize their own deeply buried prejudices.
In an essay in African American Review, Will Harris provides another critical evaluation of Childress's importance as a playwright. Harris refers to Florence as "revolutionary" in "its staging of a black feminist ideology." Childress, according to Harris, is one of the early black women playwrights who was capable of taking the prevailing image of black women as servants and transforming it "into a potent symbol" of strength. Childress's ability to transform negative images of black women into strong positive images of strength and resilience is an important legacy that Childress leaves for her readers and for those who are privileged to see her plays performed. Although it is rare to see a performance of Florence, both Hay and Harris make clear that Childress's contributions to theater and her images of strong black women should be remembered.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, and she is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay on Florence, Karmiol discusses Childress's message about racism and the oppression that black women face.
Alice Childress noted in her essay "A Woman Playwright Speaks Her Mind," published in Freedomways in 1966, that the United States extended basic rights and opportunities to foreign visitors and to immigrants that it did not offer to black Americans. International travelers who visited the United States were free to travel, seek shelter in hotels, and eat at restaurants that black Americans were barred from entering. Visitors could ride public transportation and were not forced to sit in the back of a bus or to surrender their seats for the comfort of white passengers. Segregation denied these freedoms to black citizens. This injustice is manifest in Childress's play Florence when Mama Whitney and Mrs. Carter are seated on opposite sides of the divided railway station, when Mama must use the men's bathroom because she is not permitted to use the bathroom labeled "White Ladies," and when Mama must bring a sack lunch on the train because she is not allowed to enter the dining car. Childress thought that writing was an important way to tell the truth Page 121 | Top of Articleabout racism and that a black woman writing about black women's lives was an essential step in exposing the destructiveness of racism. Childress uses her short play Florence to explore both the observable and the unseen symbols of racism that oppressed women in 1940s American life.
In Florence, two women sit on opposite sides of the color line in a segregated railway station. The conversation between them gives voice to Childress's concerns about the insidiousness of racism and the extent to which it permeates American society. The railway waiting room is divided by a low railing that creates two separate areas within the room, one for "White" passengers and another for "Colored" passengers. The railing can be easily crossed, as both Mama and Mrs. Carter do at separate times in the play, so the audience understands that the railing is a symbol of division and not simply a barrier designed to keep white and black passengers on different sides of the room. As Elizabeth Brown-Guillory notes in her book Their Place on the Stage, the railing is "a physical and emotional barrier between whites and blacks." It is one of the symbols that Childress uses to remind her audience that black and white people have been kept apart by artificial barriers. That the barrier fails actually to separate the two women illustrates that their basic humanity is the same. When each woman is impelled by emotion to confront the other, she easily crosses to the other side. When Mama challenges Mrs. Carter's defense of her brother's notion that a black woman would commit suicide because she is not white, she crosses the railing and moves one foot into the white side of the room. Similarly, when Mrs. Carter offers to find employment for Florence as a domestic, her excitement at being able to help Mama moves her to the colored side of the room. Brown-Guillory explains that the railing serves a purpose, even though it does not effectively separate white and black. According to Brown-Guillory, "Conversations and actions are structured around this dividing line that reminds the audience that there are special limitations placed on blacks and whites." When Mama has had enough of Mrs. Carter's conversation, she reminds her that "it's against the law" for Mrs. Carter to cross over to the colored side of the room. With those few words, Childress reminds the audience that while laws may separate black and white, ignorance and bias present barriers that are much harder to overcome.
The special limitations placed on black and white that Brown-Guillory observes also remind the audience that black and white passengers are not only separate but they are treated as unequal as well. The separate bathrooms are a reminder that even in matters of physical need, black passengers must be kept separate from white passengers. It is not enough, though, that the bathrooms are labeled White and Colored. They are also labeled "White ladies" and "Colored women." The immediate implication is that "Colored" women are not ladies. The word "ladies" suggests a social status that is missing from the word "women." Ladies have a higher social position than other women. In the aristocracy, the wife of an aristocrat is simply titled "Lady." Even in the United States, where supposedly equality eliminates social class, the term "lady" denotes a woman of refinement, of social position, and of manners. The use of the word, woman simply designates a person of the female gender, a human being who possesses certain feminine, and largely biological, characteristics. This common term suggests nothing extraordinary beyond a woman's humanness. The division of these two groups of female into "ladies" and "women" in Florence is taken one step further when the porter tells Mama that "if you go to the restroom, use the Colored men's." According to the porter, the bathroom for "Colored" women is out of order, and so Mama must use the men's bathroom. This middle-aged woman must debase herself in order to use the bathroom. As if the humiliation of separate seating in the waiting room and separate bathrooms for white and black people is not sufficient, Mama must also use the "Colored" men's bathroom and, as Brown-Guillory reminds readers, "risk having her privacy invaded," should a man walk in on her. In this way, Childress reminds her audience that separate is also unequal. White women, who are defined by the signage as Page 122 | Top of Articlesuperior to black women, are not forced to submit themselves to a degrading experience to meet their physical needs. Racism has implications beyond the obvious separate bathrooms; it also strikes deeply into the very definition of what it means to be a human being.
Mrs. Carter is Childress's reminder that even those who think themselves open-minded, generous, and tolerant can themselves be guilty of racism. Childress maintains in a 1993 interview with Shirley Jordan, published in Broken Silences: Interviews with Black and White Women Writers, that people, including black people, who say they know nothing about racism are failing to look beyond the obvious. Childress claims that everyone has "heard, felt, and seen racism, but many do not wish to see it." It is "comforting," according to Childress, to deny racism and painful to admit it exists. For example, Mrs. Carter defends herself to Mama as someone who is not a racist. She has given money "to a Negro college for scholarships," and she has "eaten with Negroes." These are surface expressions of tolerance. Racism is much deeper and more carefully hidden. For instance, when Mama explains that her daughter is trying to make a living on stage, Mrs. Carter automatically assumes that Florence is a singer, telling Mama, "You people have such a gift" for music, especially spirituals. Mrs. Carter sees nothing wrong with referring to Florence as one of "you people," as if she is not an individual with talents that extend beyond the stereotypes that Mrs. Carter uses to define black people. Mrs. Carter's complete unawareness that she is racist suggests that racism is deeply ingrained into American life. A woman who thinks of herself as liberal and tolerant of differences can with a few words reveal how deeply racism permeates her thinking.
In her interview with Jordan, Childress expresses concern that white women who work hard for equal rights do not understand that the struggle for equality is more complex and more difficult for black women. It is not sufficient to have the same opportunities as black men; black women want to have the same opportunities as white women. Childress explains that "the greatest barrier between white and black women is racial." White women cannot understand the struggle of black women because they have not experienced racism. Mrs. Carter's remarks illustrate Childress's point. When told that Florence wants to be a dramatic actress, Mrs. Carter responds that Florence's attempt is "pathetic." Mrs. Carter reveals that she is an actress who has not worked in six months. She claims to be well known, and if she, a white woman with so many contacts in the business, cannot succeed, the implication is that Florence will never be a success. To Mama's argument that Florence was encouraged to be an actress because she has talent, Mrs. Carter states that "there are loads of unscrupulous whites up there" who cannot be trusted to be honest in assessing Florence's talent. Since it is obvious that a black woman cannot have the talent to succeed as an actress, Mrs. Carter is willing to help Florence find a position as a domestic. It never occurs to Mrs. Carter that she is being condescending or insulting or racist. She does not understand Mama's anger and quickly retreats to the "White ladies" bathroom to hide until it is time to board the train. Mama's response to Mrs. Carter's racism, her cowardice, and her condescension is to send money to help Florence. Rather than force Florence to return home to the hatred, racism, and restrictive blindness of the South, Mama uses Mrs. Carter's racism as the impetus to help her daughter succeed. It is clear that Mama does not have much money; in fact, the trip to New York to bring Florence home creates a significant financial hardship. More important than money, though, is the need to help one black woman survive in a world that devalues her.
Florence reveals how black women face oppression on two fronts: they are discriminated against both as women and as African Americans. It is this illumination of racism and its insidious pervasiveness that makes Florence a drama worth studying. In her 1966 essay, "A Woman Playwright Speaks Her Mind," Childress contends that black women writers need to tell the story of black women who have struggled to survive. In Florence, Childress does just that.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on Florence, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Dugan discusses Childress's works, including Florence, and identifies their importance in the history of dramatic literature in the United States.
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 Page 123 | Top of Articlewritten, produced, and published over a period of four decades." Childress wrote seventeen plays. Six have a history of both production and publication. 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 the 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. 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.
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.
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.
Finally, anthologists Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Margaret B. Wilkerson, Mari 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.
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.
Meeting Alice Childress
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 Page 124 | Top of Articlealso 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). 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 Page 125 | Top of ArticleFoundation. 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.
A Theory of Black Self-Determinist Theatre
Childress's theory of black self-determinist theatre begins and ends with her views on the meaning and function of theatre for African-Americans. Written between 1951 and 1969, her seminal essays constitute a theory of black self-determinist theatre, which she worked hard to bring into reality through her own work during the peak of her career as a playwright. Childress linked the meaning of black theatre with the great need to represent African-Americans on the stage in images and through stories that vindicate their collective and individual identity. "I have learned that I must watch my people in railroad stations, in restaurants, in the fields and tenements, at the factory wheels, in the stores, on the subway. I have watched and found that there is none so blind as he who will not see" ("Negro Theatre": 62). She defined the word "theatre" as being "derived from the Greek meaning to see or view" (61), and deduced that "a Negro people's theatre" is all about "the opportunity of seeing and viewing the Negro people" in an effort "to inspire, lift, and eventually create a complete desire for the liberation of all oppressed peoples" (63). Childress held fast to this same definition or rather description of what theatre means to the African peoples in America. She wrote that "black communities have always had black theaters," and declared that "we will continue to need them, even when, if ever, this land is free of racism. Theater serves as the mirror of life experience and reflects only what looks into it; everyone yearns to see his own image once in a while" ("My Thing": 9).
Childress envisioned the function of black theatre as twofold. Given the humanist nature of all art, Childress maintained that the usefulness of theatre as well as any art form was synonymous with its concern primarily for human beings and their values, capacities, and achievements. "There will be no progress in art without peace," she warned, "a lasting peace throughout the world" ("Negro Theatre": 63). She extended this insight to her view of a humanistic function of "Negro people's theatre" as "a guide," lighting "the way to all that we may glean the precious stuff from that which is useless." The "precious stuff" is what would make black theatre useful in enhancing black people's understanding not only of themselves, but of themselves among others who have also known oppression. Experiences of collective struggles and individual triumphs would "be heard around the world" through a black theatre that systematically seeks "out every artistic expression … to study and teach not only what has been taught before[,] but [also to] found and establish a new approach to the study of the Negro in the theatre, dance and arts" (63). "We shall take advantage of the rich culture of the Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and all theatres," Childress contended. The advantage here has to do with African-Americans expanding their knowledge of themselves and of their own theatre by discovering theatres that represent the lives of people(s) who experience this world differently. The other part of the advantage is what the black theatre could give back to the world. "Last but not least," the educational duty of the powerful movement she envisioned would be to offer "courses in the cultural background of the minority groups in this country" (63).
Childress's view of the theatre's humanistic function is balanced by her view of its political function in the history of the American theatre. She insisted that the workings of black theatre are inextricably connected to the self-determination of the African-American people: a "black theater here and there does not signify ‘turning away’ from commercial television, motion pictures and theater. It is one reaction to being turned away" ("My Thing": 9). At the same time, Childress claimed white theater does exist despite people's not saying so bluntly, and that it "is separatism." She charged that this "theater functions even though the greater part of what it turns out fails," while only a few "plays by black writers" get "presented on Broadway" (9). Her use of italics betrays the voice of resistance that heretofore did not deny that black theatre, as with all American theatre, was financially dependent on the "so-called mainstream." She also made clear that black theatre relied heavily on its own manpower, its conviction to advance subjects that promote truth about the people(s) it represented, and its ability to cope, however many plays by black Page 126 | Top of Articlewriters Broadway ignored. "The time is over for asking or even demanding human rights, in and out of the theater. We no longer ask for manhood or womanhood or dignity; all we can do is express what we have to the degree that we have it," Childress protested. In the words of a warrior still fighting the good fight, she added that "[s]oon we may have to read our works on the sidewalks of inner-city and ‘mainstream’ Broadway. Time is up. I've a play to write that may never be seen by any audience anywhere, but I do my thing. Who has ears to hear, hear … all others, later." In 1969, National Educational Television (NET) broadcasted its production of the most political and yet humanistic play in the personal repertoire Childress had been carefully building since 1949. And three years later, Samuel French published Wine in the Wilderness for what has become an international audience.
At the core of Childress's theory of black self-determinist theatre are her views on the relationship between the individual black playwright and a collective black theatre. Perhaps the most complicated of Childress's arguments, they delineate the writer's role as the central source and resource of a powerful movement. In the black writer was the soul of the black theatre. For Childress, the development and growth of black playwrights and actors "into real people's artists," represents the congruity between the humanistic function as an end, and the political as a means to that end ("Negro Theater": 63). She included herself as a playwright when she explained that real people's artists "must be sure that through our interpretation the world and our next door neighbor may see and view the Negro people." As with the black theatre, the function of a real people's artist—or in Childress's case the black playwright—is humanistic within the context of long-term goals. "Where is truth? Where are the schools that will teach us Negro art forms?" Both will be needed if the writer is to project black people in their own terms, and is to view them as one of many participants in a world community where equality of all begins with the knowledge and respect of one another's differences.
With regard to the method used to reach this goal, the function of the black playwright according to Childress is decidedly political. Childress urged writers to take a self-determinist route towards gaining the "time, study and research" needed to cultivate an "understanding and projection of Negro culture" ("Negro Theatre": 62). The greater part of her theory delineates a method for self-expression by which black playwrights can make the African-American people [the] subject of plays for a theatre that she believed would be dedicated to "telling the truth" about their many experiences, and to promoting their well-being.
Childress's method of self-expression demands that the writer make a personal investment in the subject. She pointed out the deliberate lack of "interest" that modern American educational and theatrical institutions were taking "in the cultural or historical background of the Negro people" ("Negro Theatre": 61). As a result most artists "can only ‘suggest’ an African," she argued, "because we have been divorced through education from much of our cultural heritage." Therefore, the first step of her method is to attain self-knowledge. The black writer must "turn within" him or herself "for guidance" to portray black people.
Since the ultimate goal is to educate others, the black writer is to go on to the second step of defining the black self on a collective level, first by examining African art forms that already exist, and then by turning searching eyes toward the people themselves. Finally, in a third step of the method, the writer's self-knowledge and self-definition incur with the act of literary mimesis. The real people's artist has the responsibility of giving aesthetic expression to observations of "neighbors, the community, the domestic workers, laborers, white-collar workers, churches, lodges, and institutions" ("Negro Theatre": 62). "These things," Childress was convinced, "we must learn to duplicate."
Childress insisted upon this third step. She believed that emphasis on the real-life situations, conditions, and circumstances of black people formed the core value for black theatre. She saw these as sources to which black writers must turn in order to project black culture. She also valued the past and cautioned writers never to overlook it: "be wary of those who tell you to leave the past alone and confine yourselves to the present moment. Our story has not been told in any moment, … and our history is not gone with the wind, it is still with us" ("Negro Woman": 16). Her point is that the independence and self-government of the black-theatre relies on black writers turning out "plays … about these things" (17).
"These things" were not on view elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s. Stories of African-American Page 127 | Top of Articlemen and women either misrepresented them or simply did not take them seriously as proper subject matter for literature. Depicting black self-determination would redress the false images of blacks so commonly presented on the stage and in film, and it would provide images where there were none. In an instance concerning the black woman in American literature, Childress argued that "the general popular American drama, television, motion pictures and radio" nearly omitted the Negro woman as important subject matter ("Negro Woman": 14). Furthermore, they misconceived her strengths "as faults" and freely produced grossly distorted images because of prejudice and ignorance among average American citizens. If the black woman was not the "empty and decharacterized faithful servant," she was the demoralized hussy or at best an overtly religious, ball-busting matriarch. It was up to writers committed to truth to "tell her story, with the full knowledge and appreciation of her constant, unrelenting struggle against racism and for human rights" (19). In this way, she would attain "her rightful place in American literature" as significant to the history of this country she helped to build with "soap suds and muscle."
Childress understood that if "plays … about these things" were not produced and published, the creation of such plays would not receive financial support. She saw little hope of "escape" from this reality: "any attempt to ‘buy our own’ puts us in the position where they ["white power"] can cut off our supply lines, via unions and real estate holdings, at a moment's notice" ("Literary Lions": 86). Bleak though this may sound, however, Childress was not a fatalist. She believed in "black writers establishing a ‘black aesthetic,’" despite her reservations about their finding "a way to earn some minimum living within the white economy" (36). That black theatre was economically in a "subservient position" was a fact to her, and that was all it was, a fact (86). "Soon we may have to read our works on the sidewalks of inner-city and ‘mainstream’ Broadway" ("My Thing": 9). For Childless, the soul of black theatre was not in where it would or could be housed; it was in the politics of its relationship to black people. The control of black theatre Childress placed in the hands of black playwrights.
To turn out plays depicting black self-determination was fundamentally the heart beat of black theatre as Childress viewed it. Its future depended on the "pouring out [of] what is still largely unusual" ("Literary Lions": 36). On the one hand, the unusual was a determination against racist determinism. "I have ever been in the position of having to study and understand the ‘greatness’ or meanness of others and of making whatever adjustment to exist in their world," Childress lamented, recounting an experience with which black people are still all too familiar (86). The usual was "the oppressed forever studying the oppressor, deferring self-expression to self-censorship" in an appeal to the "goodwill" of those who afflict pain, and being left "bitter" or at best "numb." A bitter Childress exclaimed that "we have cajoled, pleaded, tommed, protested, achieved, rioted, defied, unified … you name it! But white supremacists have dug their heels into the ground and will settle for nothing less than out-right confrontation in the streets of America" (87).
On the other hand, the unusual was not merely a reaction to white supremacy. The black theatre she envisioned was a form of self-expression, and in this Childress located its greatest significance. It was a theatre that would express her feelings without censure; that favored truth over the good will of those who oppressed her. Whether of bitterness or of happiness, self-expression was the evidence and means of creating an independent and self-governed black theatre….
Source: Olga Dugan, "Telling the Truth: Alice Childress as Theorist and Playwright," in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 81, No. 1/4, Winter-Autumn 1996, pp. 123-36.
In the following essay, Koppelman gives a brief overview of Childress's life, accomplishments, and works, including Florence.
Alice Childress, award-winning playwright, novelist, actress, director, and lecturer, died in New York on Sunday, August 14, 1994. Many considered her the greatest African American woman playwright in the history of this country. Her work has been praised for its powerful and frank treatment of racial issues, the compassionate but unflinching characterizations she created, and the broad appeal of her work. Her ability to personalize social issues such as poverty, racism, addiction, and child abuse mobilized those who saw her plays and read her novels to take action on behalf of social justice.
She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 12, 1920, was educated at public schools in Harlem, and, as a midlife adult, was a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. She studied acting with Venzella Jones and Nadja Romanov.
Among her many honors was the coveted Obie Award for the best original Off-Broadway play for Trouble in Mind in 1956, which she also directed. For her famous 1973 novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (which revolutionized writing for young adults by introducing the nitty-gritty realities of urban life in following a young boy's struggle with drug addiction), she received awards from the Jane Addams Peace Association, a National Book Award Nomination, the Lewis Carrol Shelf Award, an Outstanding Book of the Year Citation from the New York Times, and the Best Young Adult Book citation from the American Library Association. In 1975 she received the Sojourner Truth Award from the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs.
She wrote the screenplay for the film of A Hero, starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson and was honored for this work with the first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts and election to the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977. Another young adult novel, Rainbow Jordan, was named an outstanding book of the year by the New York Times in 1982, a School Library Journal best book of 1981, and an honorable mention for a Coretta Scott King Award.
Miss Childress spent 11 years with the American Negro Theater in New York City as an actress and director, belonged to the Harlem Writers Guild, and acted in such plays as Anna Lucasta, The World of Sholom Aleichem, The Cool World, and in the title role of her own play, Florence, on and off the Broadway stage and on television. She can be seen in the 1968 Paramount film Uptight.
With her husband of 37 years, musician and composer Nathan Woodard, Alice Childress wrote the musical plays Young Martin Luther King (originally titled The Freedom Drum), Martin Luther King at Montgomery, Alabama, The African Garden, Gullah, and Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (based on the life of Jackie "Moms" Mabley). Their long and happy marriage provided a model of mutual respect and collegiality to many young artists they mentored, helping the artists learn mutually to accommodate and support the creative careers of those they love. They travelled widely, visiting and performing in many countries on three continents.
Her play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, a story of interracial love (first produced at the University of Michigan in 1966), was co-directed by Childress with Joseph Papp as part of the New York City Public Theater's Shakespeare Festival in 1972 and adapted for television and broadcast by ABC in 1973. Producer-director Debbie Allen plans a production of this play.
Childress's book of dramatic monologues, Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life, first published in 1956, was reprinted with an introduction by Trudier Harris in 1986 by Beacon Press. The monologues were published first as a column in Freedom, a newspaper edited by Paul Robeson, and continued in the Baltimore Afro-American. These short, provocative, and inspiring pieces are often read aloud today from pulpits and in classrooms. Her adult novel, A Short Walk, first published in 1979, traces African American history from the turn of the century to the mid-century civil rights movement by following the life of Cora James, born in Charleston, through her struggle to survive in Harlem in the 1940s. The novel's depiction of African American experience ranges from the Marcus Garvey movement to the vaudeville circuit.
Childress received the Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal in 1984, the African Poets Theatre Award in 1985, and the Harlem School of the Arts Humanitarian Award in 1987. She is survived by her husband and one granddaughter; her daughter, Jean Lee, predeceased her. Mr. Woodard remarked that Alice Childress's final message to us was "God Bless Us All."
Source: Susan Koppelman, "Alice Childress: An Appreciation," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 1994, p. 6.
In the following essay, Brown-Guillory discusses the roles of black characters in the plays of Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, and Childress, including the play Florence.
Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange, three outstanding contemporary black women playwrights, are crucial links Page 129 | Top of Articlein the development of black women playwriting in America. These three playwrights, whose perspectives and portraits are decidedly different from those of black males and white playwrights, have created images of blacks which dispel the myths of "the contented slave," "the tragic mulatto," "the comic Negro," "the exotic primitive," and "the spiritual-singing, toe-tapping, faithful servant."
Childress, Hansberry, and Shange have created credible images of blacks, such as "the black militant," "the black peacemaker," "the black assimilationist," "the optimistic black capitalist," "the struggling black artist," and "the contemporary black matriarch." However, three images which appear most frequently in the plays of these black women are "the black male in search of his manhood," "the black male as a walking wounded" and "the evolving black woman."
The black male in search of his manhood, a product of the ambivalence fostered mainly by the continued disinheritance of blacks after World War II and the Korean War, is a major new image in contemporary literature. Functioning in this role, the black male struggles to realize who he is and what his function in life is to be. In his essay, "Visions of Love and Manliness in a Blackening World: Dramas of Black Life from 1953-1970," Darwin T. Turner states:
Ironically, as black dramatists examine their characters more critically, often they seem less polemical and more compassionate because, in the black world, they perceive not only individuals searching for manhood and love but even more pathetic figures too impotent to search for manhood or to achieve a relationship of love….
Plays by Childress substantiate Turner's claim because the image of the black male in search of his manhood is shown either as a creature who is in the process of becoming a mature human being or one who is too incapacitated to search for manhood. His insecurity of his own identity and values renders him generally passive. He vacillates between integration and separatism. He has yet to establish a philosophy about how to succeed or cope in American society.
As he strives to overcome personal problems and to achieve responsible maturity, the confused black male may castigate blacks and opt to align himself with whites who he feels will validate his manhood. Though he may reject his ethnicity during the search, he reaches maturity when he realizes that his manhood does not hinge upon his acceptance by anyone but himself.
John Nevins, a black male in search of his manhood, appears in Childress' 1955 Obie award-winning drama, Trouble in Mind, a play which centers around the frustration blacks feel because of the limited and demeaning roles available to them on the American stage. John, in his early twenties, hopes to prove his manhood by becoming a successful actor. A novice among his veteran-actor co-workers, John dreams of making money regardless of what must be sacrificed. When the white director, Al Manners, appears, John immediately becomes a "yes-man," indicating that he is neither assertive nor self-respecting.
Nevins's self-effacement is apparent during the rehearsal of Chaos in Belleville, Childress' play within a play, a device which she learned from Shakespeare, one of her principal influences. When Al Manners asks John if he can object in an artistic sense to the word darkies, John placatingly replies:
No I don't object. I don't like the word but it is used, it's a slice of life. Let's face it, Judy wouldn't use it, Mr. Manners wouldn't …
John eagerly compromises his opinions to keep his role in Chaos in Belleville in order to "make it" in the theatre and, thus, define his manhood.
When his black co-workers display anger at his "Tomish" remarks, John aligns himself with one of the white actresses, Judy, hoping that she will validate that he is a man. Not only does he seek approval or direction from Judy, but he also turns to Al Manners. However, Manners, during an argument over interpretation, unthinkingly makes the mistake of implying that John could Page 130 | Top of Articlenot be compared to his son because John is black and his son is white. Angered by this remark and encouraged by his black co-workers to assert himself, John examines his values and decides that racial pride means more to him than success in a play that degrades blacks. Boldly he declares, "They can write what they want but we don't have to do it." John moves in the direction of maturity as his black peers help him to become whole.
Whereas John Nevins eventually asserts himself, Sheldon Forrester, one of John's co-workers, typifies the image of the black who is too impotent to search for manhood. Sheldon chooses to sacrifice dignity for minor roles on the American stage. He has no self-respect, and he chastises those blacks who affirm themselves. Sheldon has been worn down and perceives that it is futile for a black male to try to function as a man in American society. Ironically, Sheldon defines his manhood in terms of success at projecting that he is not a man among white men. He brags that his denial of self has helped him to survive in the world and says that blacks ought to "take low" in order to keep whatever jobs are issued out to them. The audience sees Sheldon's spinelessness when he aims his remarks at his co-worker, Millie:
I hope the wind blows her away. They gonna kick us until we all out in the street … unemployed … get all the air you want then. Sometimes I take low, yes, gotta take low. Man say somethin' to me, I say … "yes, sure, certainly." That ain't tommin', that's common sense. You and me … we don't mind takin' low because we tryin' to accomplish somethin' … Well, yeah, we all mind … but you got to swaller….
Sheldon has neither the courage nor the determination to become a whole person.
Like Sheldon, Teddy is a black male in search of his manhood in Alice Childress' Mojo: A Black Love Story, a play which deals with the need for black men and women to be supportive of each other both in and out of love relationships. At the beginning of the play, Teddy is searching for his manhood in his relationship with his white girlfriend, Berniece. He wants very much to please her so that she, as he says, will make him feel like a man. Teddy's devotion to his status symbol is apparent when he makes the following comments: "Aw, baby, I aint callin you white folks, you wild, yallerheaded, fine thing, you! They all white folks but you … you somethin else. I'll be there …"
Later when Teddy argues with his black ex-wife, Irene, he displays insecurity and his need for affirmation from a white woman:
TEDDY. Git offa my back, Reeny … that's one thing bout that simple Berniece … she make me feel like a man. She's white but she make you feel like….
IRENE. Feel like … feel like … I been hearing that all my days … sound like my poppa … "I wanta feel like a man." You wanta be a man … forget that feel like … feel like….
TEDDY. If you wasn't on your way to the hospital I'd knock the hell out of you, for underminin me. Berniece knows how to make you feel pleasant.
Towards the end of the play Teddy, with the help of Irene, does begin to insist that he is a man, not a child needing approval. His growing confidence in himself is demonstrated when he lovingly reaches out to comfort Irene who is soon to be hospitalized.
Childress' sensitive treatment of the black male in search of his manhood reflects her vision that black men and women can become whole only when they not only join forces but resources as well. Childress' Teddy represents those black males who refuse to let poverty and bad luck keep them from growing into fine black men who accept responsibility for their families.
Unlike the black male in search of his manhood is the black male as a walking wounded. Whereas the former struggles for direction and identity, the latter knows exactly who he is and is painfully aware of the fact that he is oppressed in American society. He not only survives but survives whole. Though physical and/or emotional blows are heaped upon him, he is neither fragmented nor abusive to his women. He is fully aware of his roots and is proud of his heritage.
The black male as a walking wounded insists that he be treated like a human being. A contented slave he is not; instead, he struggles to free himself and others from oppressive forces. Because of a positive sense of self, he can and does reach out to others. He especially has a strong sense of family togetherness, a trait which his African fathers brought with them to America. In short, this character, which is diametrically opposite to the image of the incorrigible black beast that dominated the American stage for so many decades, refuses to be anybody's sacrificial lamb and boldly keeps going in spite of his wounds.
Though Childress, Hansberry, and Shange have created credible images of black men, the Page 131 | Top of Articlefemales in plays by black women have much more dimension and are more finely tuned than the males, These black women characters are not … like Karintha and Carma in Jean Toomer's Cane or Bessie Mears in Richard Wright's Native Son. Nor do they resemble the countless "black mammies" who were created to represent black womanhood, such as Dilsey in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Berniece in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, Addie in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, or Ella Swan in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. Doris Abramson in Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre 1925-1959 includes the following Hansberry quote which demonstrates her rejection of the then popular images of blacks:
One night, after seeing a play I won't mention, I suddenly became disgusted with the whole body of material about Negroes. Cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or swinging musicals from exotic sources.
Additionally, Cynthia Belgrave in "Readers' Forum: Black Women in Film Symposium," comments on the inaccurate and narrow images of black women on the American stage:
If you're strong and stoical you're a matriarch, and if you're weak and sensual, you're a whore. Of course there are no equitable gradations in between…. The Black woman is at the mercy of everybody. When we finish kicking people, let us kick the Black woman again.
… In her essay, "Images of Black Women in Plays by Black Playwrights," Jeanne-Marie A. Miller contends that the images of black women are not only peripheral in plays by whites, but the portraits of black women in plays written by black men are, generally, radically different from the images of black women in plays by black women:
In the plays written by Black males, Black women's happiness or "completeness" depends upon strong Black men. Thus, Black women playwrights bring to their works their vision, however different, of what Black women are or what they should be.
In short, Miller calls for an inclusion of the caricatures of black women playwrights when the images of black writers are the subject of discussion.
Mary Helen Washington in Black Eyed-Susans: Classic Stories By and about Black Women makes a strong case in the following lines for studying black women writers:
What is most important about the black woman writer is her special and unique vision of the black woman…. One of the main preoccupations of the black woman writer has been the black woman herself—her aspirations, her conflicts, her relationships to her men and her children, her creativity…. That these writers have firsthand knowledge of their subject ought to be enough to command attention.
Childress, Hansberry, and Shange view black women from a special angle. One image which dominates their plays is "the evolving black woman," a phrase which embodies the multiplicity of emotions of ordinary black women for whom the act of living is sheer heroism. This creature emphasizes understanding and taking care of herself. Not always a powerhouse of strength, the evolving black woman is quite fragile. Her resiliency, though, makes her a positive image of black womanhood. Self respecting, self-sufficient, assertive, these women force others around them to recognize their adulthood….
Florence in Alice Childress' Florence, may be classified as an evolving black woman. As the play opens, Florence's mother, Mrs. Whitney, and her sister, Marge, discuss Florence, who has moved to New York because she views the South as too confining for a black woman desirous of improving her lifestyle. Characteristically, Florence strives to survive in a hostile world. Placed in the position of supporting herself and her son because her husband was killed by whites in the South, Florence dreams of becoming an accomplished actress. She chooses to relocate in order to fulfill those dreams.
Though Florence has not met with much success, except for the several times that she has played the part of a maid in plays, she is determined to find a way to make a name for herself in the theater. Florence is a positive image of black womanhood; she refuses to use racism as an excuse for not trying to improve her lifestyle. She represents those black women who refuse to despair in the sight of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Instead of applying for public assistance, she sets out to become self-sufficient in a profession that she considers dignified. It is her determination to succeed after her husband's death which makes her a character truly to be admired.
The evolving black women in Childress' Wine in the Wilderness and Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf are preoccupied Page 132 | Top of Articlewith themselves because they have been disappointed by the men who have come into their lives. These are women who have had their share of "deferred dreams" and are no longer willing to play the role of "woman-behind-her-man" to men who appreciate neither their submissiveness nor their docility. These women rebel and claim that no man is ever going to oppress them again. They are not women who give up on men or feel that all men are insensitive beasts; instead, they are women who have become independent because of their fear of being abused physically and/or emotionally in subsequent relationships.
The image of the black woman in these two plays is that of a woman who has to "sing the blues" before she is able to make some sense out of the chaos in her life. Though black women who are abandoned in Childress' and Shange's plays bewail their losses, emphasis is placed on their ability to survive in a world where they are forced to care for themselves. The evolving black women in these plays fight back after they have been bruised, and they work toward improving their lifestyles.
Tommy Marie in Alice Childress' Wine in the Wilderness is an evolving black woman. When a young, black, middle-class artist, Bill Jameson, chooses to include Tommy in his trip-tych, she gets the impression that he is interested in starting a relationship with her. However, though Bill seduces her, he merely intends to use her to capture the image of, as he describes it, "the dumb chick whose had her behind kicked until it's numb."
When Cynthia, a bourgeois friend of Bill, tries to tell Tommy that she is not good enough for Bill and that she must not look upon him as a possible provider, Tommy Marie flaunts her independence:
Tommy's not lookin' for a meal ticket. I been doin' for myself all my life. It takes two to make it in this high priced world…. I have a dream too. Mine is to find a man who'll treat me just half-way decent … just to meet me half way is all I ask, to smile, to be kind to me. Somebody in my corner. Not to wake up by myself in the mornin' and face this world alone … I'm so lonesome … I want somebody to love. Somebody to say … "That's alright," when the world treats me mean.
Tommy typifies the evolving black woman in that she dreams of finding a man who will love and share with her, but it is apparent in her comments that she has equipped herself to survive alone if she must….
I don't have to wait for anybody's by-your-leave to be a "Wine in the Wilderness woman." I can be it if I wanta, … and I am. I am. I am. I'm not the one you made up and painted, the very pretty lady who can't talk back, … but I'm "Wine in the Wilderness" … alive and kickin' me… Tomorrow-Marie, cussin' and fightin' and lookin' out for my damn self ‘cause ain’ nobody else around to do it, dontcha know…. That's "Wine in the Wilderness," … a woman that's a real one and good one. And yall just better believe I'm it.
… James V. Hatch contends that Tommy Marie is a positive image of black womanhood because she is honest, and she is not living under the illusion of false reality. Hatch suggests that she is a survivor who refuses to despair:
True, Tommy "hopes" that Bill will seriously fall for her, but if he doesn't, she is prepared to move on. She is a sensible woman without pretense. The beauty of Wine in the Wilderness is in part due to the author's sensitive treatment of Tommy whose warmth, compassion, inner dignity, and pride make her more of a woman than Cynthia will ever be. Alice Childress has created a powerful, new black heroine who emerges from the depths of the black community.
At the end of the play, Tommy is confident that if Bill Jameson does not see her worth and beauty, another male will. What is important to note is that Alice Childress has created an image of a woman whose inner strength will protect her as she searches for a stable relationship in which there is reciprocity….
Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange are contemporary black women playwrights whose visions or perspective[s] are different from black males or white writers. To exclude black women playwrights as a source for examining black life is to omit a large piece of the human puzzle. These three major women writers are important because they, too, like black women writers in other genres, supply America with plausible, and in some cases unique, images of black men and women.
Some have dared to ask, "Do black women playwrights really depict black life?" Unequivocally, they do, but these images must be viewed in conjunction with the images created by black males in order to create an accurate picture of black life. Others have asked, "Do black women playwrights represent the majority of blacks?" These selected playwrights do not create images Page 133 | Top of Articlewhich represent the majority of blacks; no two or three writers can, or should have to try. However, these three women playwrights present a vital slice of life, and it is up to many more black writers to capture the multitude of images of blacks.
Perhaps, the most important question to be asked is "Will society be different after meeting the characters in the plays of black women?" The answer is yes, significantly so. When blacks turn to theater for better ways to live, Childress, Hansberry, and Shange offer them a multiplicity of options via black characters who come from the heart of the black community. Contemporary black women playwrights uniquely give to the American stage a view from the other half.
Source: Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, "Black Women Playwrights: Exorcising Myths," in Phylon, Vol. 48, No. 3, Fall 1987, pp. 229-39.
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Austin argues for the importance of reading Childress's plays as strong pro-feminist works. Although this essay provides some general observations about Childress, Austin's primary focus is on two of Childress's texts, Wine in the Wilderness and Trouble in Mind.
Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch, A History of African American Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
This book presents a thorough history of African American theater and its traditions. This text discusses several different formats, including vaudeville and minstrel shows, as well as dramatic theater.
Packard, Jerrold M., American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, St. Martin's, 2003.
Packard traces the origination of slavery as a legal institution and of Jim Crow laws, which were common throughout the United States. He also provides a detailed look at segregation and the court cases that brought an end to Jim Crow.
Ritterhouse, Jennifer, Growing Up Jim Crow: The Racial Socialization of Black and White Southern Children, 1890-1940, University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
The author explores how children learned the unwritten and carefully socialized rules of segregation. This book investigates how parents taught their children about segregation and Page 134 | Top of Articlehow the differences between public and private behaviors were defined during this period of American history.
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