Born on October 12, 1916, in Charleston, South Carolina, Alice Childress grew up in Harlem. She acted with the American Negro Theatre—earning a Tony Award nomination for one performance— before turning to writing. Her noted works include the play Trouble in Mind and the young adult novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. Childress died on August 14, 1994, at age 77, in New York City.
Playwright Alice Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 12, 1916 (her birth year has sometimes been listed as 1912 or 1920). In 1925, when her parents separated, she moved to Harlem to live with her grandmother. Childress credited her grandmother with sparking her writer's imagination by encouraging her to make up stories about passersby.
When both her mother and grandmother passed away, Childress was forced to leave high school before graduating. Although she had to work in many different jobs in order to make ends meet, she was also able to study acting. In the 1930s, she married a fellow actor, Alvin Childress, and became Alice Childress (she had previously used the names Louise Henderson and Alice Herndon).
Childress soon joined the American Negro Theatre. There, in addition to acting, she took on different roles behind the scenes. In 1944, a play she was appearing in, Anna Lucasta, was transferred to Broadway and Childress was nominated for a Tony for Best Supporting Actress. Though she received more work afterward, she found that good roles for African Americans, particularly women, were few and far between.
In part because of a dearth of interesting roles, and also because her fellow actors had bet that a good play could not be written overnight, Childress wrote her first play, the one-act Florence, in 1949. This was followed by Gold Through the Trees, which, in 1952, became the first play written by an African-American woman to be professionally produced in New York.
Childress's first full-length play appeared Off Broadway in 1955. Trouble in Mind used its play-within-a-play format to examine the limits of understanding between white producers and black performers. It won an Obie Award and was scheduled for a move to Broadway. However, Childress refused to add in a happier ending, so the Broadway transfer never took place.
In 1966, Childress wrote about an interracial relationship in Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White. The play was not seen in New York until 1972, when it appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival. Childress was its director, making her the first African-American woman to direct an Off Broadway play. When Wedding Band was adapted for television, several stations refused to air it.
Childress also wrote novels and short stories. Her best-known book is 1973's A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, a young adult novel about a 13-year-old heroin user. Although the book was banned by many libraries, it was still widely read and became a movie in 1978. Her other books include A Short Walk (1979) and Rainbow Jordan (1981).
Death and Legacy
Childress was 77 when she died on August 14, 1994, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York. She was survived by a granddaughter and by her second husband, composer Nathan Woodard.
Childress left behind a body of work that continues to be admired. Not only did she create better roles for women, she addressed race relations, detailed the compromises people make in order to survive and acknowledged those living on the margins of society.
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