Alice Childress, Screencap via CreativeQuotations Youtube Channel
CAIRO – 12 October 2017: October 12 marks the birthday of American author and actress Alice Childress, an African-American woman whose career in writing spanned decades and paved the way for many more black writers to find their voice.
Childress came into the world on October 12, 1916, in Charleston, South Carolina, though her family quickly moved to Harlem, New York where she would grow up.
She was raised by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write about random people passing by.
The environment there would heavily influence her, as Childress came to learn about how downtrodden black people were, yet how joyful they could be amongst each other.
Studying as an actress, Childress graduated and later taught at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, where in 1944, she would star in the play “Anna Lucasta,” which became a major hit and even transferred to Broadway.
“Anna Lucasta” became the longest-running all black play in Broadway’s history. She was nominated for a Tony Award at this time.
Childress lamented the lack of interesting roles for African-Americans, women particularly, and on a dare by her friends got into writing plays and came up with "Florence" in just one night in 1949.
This one-act play saw the action taking place in a train station’s waiting room, where an elderly black woman comes to support her daughter, Florence, in her dreams of becoming an actress after meeting a racist white actress.
Her first full-act play was "Trouble in Mind" in 1955. This play-within-a-play story analyzed the relationships between black performers and white producers, and the ways talent could be stifled by the racist prejudices of those in power.
This play won a Tobi Award and was even planned to make it to Broadway, though Childress refused to alter the unhappy ending, so the plans were dropped.
Childress would make history as the first African-American woman to direct an off Broadway play with her 1966 story, "Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White," which examined interracial marriage. It took until 1972 for the play to make it to New York, and when a TV movie adaptation was made in 1974, several TV stations refused to air it. It still managed to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award a year later.
Amongst the most famous of Childress’s work is a book she wrote for children in 1973, "A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich." This story was an honest and realistic portrayal of drug addiction, following a young boy named Benjie who becomes a heroin addict at the age of 13, feeling he has nothing else to turn to.
The narrative jumps to the various people in his life, from his parents, teachers, and even his dealer, providing different perspectives on Benjie’s life. Director Ralph Nelson adapted the play into a feature film in 1978.
Childress died of cancer at the age of 77 in Queens, New York, before finishing a story based on the lives of her great-grandmothers, one a slave and the other of Scottish-Irish descent.
Her legacy is that of the only African-American woman to have written plays across four decades.