Alice Childress

Last updated
Alice Childress
Born(1916-10-12)October 12, 1916
Charleston, South Carolina
DiedAugust 14, 1994(1994-08-14) (aged 77)
New York City
OccupationPlaywright, novelist, actress
Notable works Like One of the Family (1956); A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973)

Alice Childress (October 12, 1916 [1] – August 14, 1994) was an American novelist, playwright, and actress, acknowledged as "the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades." [2] Childress described her work as trying to portray the have-nots in a have society, [3] saying: "My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvellously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne." [4] Childress also became involved in social causes, and formed an off-Broadway union for actors. [5]


Alice Childress's paper archive is held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, NY. [6]

Early years

Childress (née Herndon) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but at the age of nine, after her parents separated, she moved to Harlem where she lived with her grandmother, Eliza Campbell White, on 118th Street, between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue. [7] [8] Though her grandmother, the daughter of a slave, [9] had no formal education, she encouraged Alice to pursue her talents in reading and writing. [10] Alice attended public school in New York for her middle-school education and went on to Wadleigh High School, but had to drop out once her grandmother died. [7] She became involved in theater immediately after her high school and she did not attend college. [11]



She took odd jobs to pay for herself, including domestic worker, photo retoucher, assistant machinist, saleslady, and insurance agent. In 1939, she studied Drama in the American Negro Theatre (ANT), and performed there for 11 years. She acted in Abram Hill and John Silvera's On Strivers Row (1940), Theodore Brown's Natural Man (1941), and Philip Yordan's Anna Lucasta (1944). [11] There she won acclaim as an actress in numerous other productions, and moved to Broadway with the transfer of ANT's hit Anna Lucasta, which became the longest-running all-black play in Broadway history [12] among a cast that also included Hilda Simms, Canada Lee, Georgia Burke, Earle Hyman and Frederick O'Neal. [13] Though many biographies list her as having won a Tony award nomination for her starring performance [2] [4] , this does not turn out to be the case.


In 1949 she began her writing career with the one-act play Florence, which she directed and starred in, and which reflected many of the themes that are characteristic of her later writing, including the empowerment of black women, interracial politics, and working-class life. [3] [14] In Florence, a black, Southern, working-class woman, Mama Whitney, decides to travel by train from South Carolina to New York City to retrieve her daughter, Florence, who is a struggling actor. However, after a white woman waiting for the same train offers to help Florence by recommending her for a job as a main, Mama Whitney decides to send her daughter money instead bringing her home. [8] [15] Childress' goal in writing Florence was to "settle an argument with fellow actors (Sidney Poitier among others) who said that in a play about Negroes and whites, only a 'life and death thing' like lynching is interesting on stage." [16]

Her 1950 play, Just a Little Simple, was adapted from the Langston Hughes novel Simple Speaks His Mind and was produced in Harlem at the Club Baron Theatre. Her next play, Gold Through the Trees (1952), gave her the distinction of being one of the first African-American women to have worked professionally produced on the New York stage. [17] The success of these plays enabled her to bring Harlem's first all-union off-Broadway contracts into practice. [18]

Childress's first full-length, dramatic play, Trouble in Mind was produced at Stella Holt's Greenwich Mews Theatre in 1955 and ran for 91 performances. [8] Again, reports of her awards have been exaggerated or mistaken: Biographies and even her 1994 obituary claimed that Trouble in Mind won an Obie award for the best off-Broadway play of the 1955–56 season, [2] which would have made Childress the first African-American woman to be awarded the honor, [14] but the Obie Awards have investigated the claim and found no record of any award going to Childress. Trouble in Mind is about racism in the theater world. In a play with-in-a-play, Childress depicts the frustrations of black actors and actresses in mainstream white theater. [8] [19]

She completed her next dramatic work, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, in 1962. Its setting is South Carolina during World War I and deals with a forbidden interracial love affair. Due to the scandalous nature of the show and the stark realism it presented, it was impossible for Childress to get any theatre in New York to stage it. The show premiered in 1966 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and was also produced in Chicago. It was not until 1972 that it played in New York at the New York Shakespeare Festival, starring Ruby Dee. [2] It was later filmed and shown on TV, but many stations refused to play it. [20]

In 1965, Childress was featured in the BBC presentation The Negro in the American Theatre. From 1966 to 1968, she was a scholar-in-residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. [21] [22]

In conjunction with her composer husband, Nathan Woodard, she wrote a number of musical plays, including Young Martin Luther King (originally entitled The Freedom Drum) in 1968 and Sea Island Song (1977). [3]

Young adult books

Alice Childress is also known for her young adult novels, among which are Those Other People (1989) and A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973). She adapted the latter as a screenplay for the 1978 feature film also entitled A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich , starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Her 1979 novel A Short Walk was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. [12]

Personal life

She had used the names Louise Henderson and Alice Herndon [23] before her marriage in 1934 to actor Alvin Childress. The couple had a daughter together, Jean R. Childress, and divorced in 1957, [24] when musician Nathan Woodard became her second husband. [3] [14]

She died of cancer, aged 77, at Astoria General Hospital in Queens, New York. [18] [23] At the time of her death she was working on a story about her African great-grandmother, Ani-Campbell, who had been a slave, [25] [8] and her Scots-Irish great-grandmother. [26]


Major works




The song "Alice Childress" by Ben Folds Five is not related to her. It is a coincidence that there was a woman with the same name that poured water on Ben Folds' wife at the time, Anna Goodman. [27]

Childress was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority. [28]

Related Research Articles

Ron Taylor (actor) American actor, singer and writer

Ronald James Taylor was an American actor, singer and writer. He grew up in Galveston, Texas and later moved to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduating, Taylor began working in musical theater, appearing in The Wiz (1977), before getting his break with the 1982 off-Broadway production Little Shop of Horrors. Taylor voiced the killer plant Audrey II in the show, which ran for five years and over 2,000 performances.

Florence Mills African American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian

Florence Mills, billed as the "Queen of Happiness", was an African-American cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian known for her effervescent stage presence, delicate voice, and winsome, wide-eyed beauty.

Florence Price American composer

Florence Beatrice Price was an American classical composer, pianist, organist and music teacher. Price is noted as the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra.

Polly Dean Holliday is an American actress who has appeared on stage, television and in film. She is best known for her portrayal of sassy waitress Florence Jean "Flo" Castleberry on the 1970s sitcom Alice, which she reprised in its short-lived spin-off, Flo. Her character's tagline of "Kiss my grits!" remains perhaps the most memorable line associated with the series Alice.

Helen Martin American actress

Helen Dorothy Martin was an American actress of stage and television. Martin's career spanned over 60 years, appearing first on stage and later in film and television. Martin is best known for her roles as Wanda on the CBS sitcom Good Times (1974–1979) and as Pearl Shay on the NBC sitcom 227 (1985–1990).

Wallace Thurman American novelist active during the Harlem Renaissance

Wallace Henry Thurman was an American novelist active during the Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote essays, worked as an editor, and was a publisher of short-lived newspapers and literary journals. He is best known for his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), which explores discrimination within the black community based on skin color, with lighter skin being more highly valued.

Rose McClendon American actress

Rose McClendon was a leading African-American Broadway actress of the 1920s. A founder of the Negro People's Theatre, she guided the creation of the Federal Theatre Project's African American theatre units nationwide and briefly co-directed the New York Negro Theater Unit.

Clarice Taylor was an American stage, film and television actress.

Beatrice Winde was an American actress.

Frederick ONeal American actor

Frederick O'Neal was an American actor, theater producer and television director. He founded the American Negro Theater, the British Negro Theatre, and was the first African-American president of the Actors' Equity Association. He was also known for his work behind the scenes as a revolutionary trade unionist.

Ann Duquesnay is an American musical theatre singer/actress, composer and lyricist best known for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, which earned her a Tony Award and Grammy Award nomination.

Gertha Boston is an American singer and actress.

<i>A Hero Aint Nothin but a Sandwich</i> 1973 young adult novel

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is a 1973 young adult novel by Alice Childress.

"Nobody" is a popular song with music by Bert Williams and lyrics by Alex Rogers, published in 1905.

<i>A Hero Aint Nothin but a Sandwich</i> (film) 1978 film by Ralph Nelson

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is a 1978 film directed by Ralph Nelson. The screenplay was written by Alice Childress, based on her novel of the same name. It was shot on location in South Central Los Angeles. It was Nelson's last film before his death.

Dr. Barbara Ann Teer was an African-American writer, producer, teacher, actress and visionary. In 1968, she founded Harlem's National Black Theatre, the first revenue-generating black theater arts complex in the U.S.

Dick Campbell, born Cornelius Coleridge Campbell, was a key figure in black theater during the Harlem Renaissance. While a successful performer in his own right, Campbell is best known as a tireless advocate for black actors in general. As a theater producer and director, he helped launch the careers of several black theater artists, including Ossie Davis, Frederick O'Neal, Loften Mitchell, Helen Martin, and Abram Hill.

<i>Anna Lucasta</i> (play) play written by Philip Yordan

Anna Lucasta is a 1944 American play by Philip Yordan. Inspired by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, the play was originally written about a Polish American family. The American Negro Theatre director Abram Hill and director Harry Wagstaff Gribble adapted the script for an all African American cast, and presented the first performance on June 16, 1944. The play moved from Harlem to Broadway's Mansfield Theatre, running August 30, 1944 – November 30, 1946. The Broadway cast included Hilda Simms, Canada Lee and Alice Childress, who earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

La Vinia Delois Jennings is an American literary scholar and critic of twentieth-century American literature and culture, currently a Distinguished Humanities Professor at the University of Tennessee, and also formerly a Lindsay Young Professor and a 1998 Fulbright Senior Lecturer appointed to the University of Málaga in Spain.

Caroline “Lynnie” Godfrey is an American actress, singer, author, director and producer.


  1. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature-A Research and Reference Guide
  2. 1 2 3 4 Mary Helen Washington, "Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Claudia Jones: Black Women Write the Popular Front", in Bill Mullen and James Edward Smethurst (eds), Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States, Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003, p. 186.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Alice Childress", Black History Now.
  4. 1 2 Margaret Busby, "Alice Childress", Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent , Vintage, 1993, p. 279.
  5. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, "Childress, Alice", The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 72.
  6. " -- Alice Childress papers". Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  7. 1 2 Biography Today: Author Series. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc. 1996. p.  18. ISBN   0-7808-0014-1.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Delois., Jennings, La Vinia (1995). Alice Childress. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN   0805739637. OCLC   32050492.
  9. "Alice Childress". Black History Now. June 19, 2014. Retrieved July 15, 2019.
  10. Jennings, La Vinia Delois (1995). Alice Childress (Twayne's United States Author Series). Woodbridge, CT: Twayne Publisher. ISBN   0805739637.
  11. 1 2 Biography Today, p. 19.
  12. 1 2 Sue Woodman, "A testimonial to black America" (obituary of Alice Childress), The Guardian , September 14, 1994.
  13. Stephen Bourne, "Obituary: Alice Childress", The Independent , August 29, 1994.
  14. 1 2 3 Michelle Granshaw, "Childress, Alice (1916-1994)",
  15. Als, Hilton (2011-10-03). "Alice Childress, the Last Woman Standing". ISSN   0028-792X . Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  16. E., Abramson, Doris (1969). Negro playwrights in the American theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN   023103248X. OCLC   6324.
  17. The New York Public Library Performing Arts Desk Reference . New York: Macmillan. 1994. p.  12. ISBN   0-02-861447-X.
  18. 1 2 Alice Sussman, "Alice Childress 1920–1994", Contemporary Black Biography, 1997,
  19. Sommers, Michael (2014-04-19). "A Play About a Play Reveals Racial Tensions". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2019-02-16.
  20. Biography Today, pp. 19–20.
  21. Biography Today, p. 20.
  22. "Notes Taken at Fisk Writers Conference", Negro Digest , June 1966, p. 90.
  23. 1 2 "Alice Childress Biography", Bio.
  24. "Trouble in Mind Notes", The Actors Company Theatre.
  25. Jen N. Fluke, Alice Childress Biography, Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota, February 28, 2003.
  26. Sheila Rule, "Alice Childress, 77, a Novelist; Drew Themes From Black Life", The New York Times, August 19, 1994.
  27. iTunes Originals interview with Ben Folds.
  28. Lakeisha Harding, "Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. (1922- )",