Actress, theater director, playwright, novelist. Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 12, 1920, to Alonzo Herndon and Florence White. Although she was taken to New York City quite early in her life and raised by her grandmother Eliza Campbell, Childress maintained a connection to the lowcountry through a network of Charlestonians living in Harlem. She did not finish high school, opting instead for a life in the theatre, first working professionally as an actress in 1940, when she joined the American Negro Theater. She eventually rose to director, a position she held for nearly twelve years.
Childress acted in plays on and off Broadway and later in films. Her first one-act play, Florence, was produced in 1949. Just a Little Simple, an adaptation of a Langston Hughes work, followed in 1952. Gold through the Trees, the first play by a black woman to be staged professionally in the American theater, was produced in 1952. Trouble in Mind, about black actors having to play stereotypical black roles created by whites, won an Obie for best Off-Broadway play in 1956, making her the first woman to win that award. Her work paved the way for later black playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry.
After her first marriage ended in 1957, she married Nathan Woodward, a future collaborator on many projects. She lectured at colleges and universities in the 1960s. Perhaps her most famous play, A Wedding Band, a tale focusing on an interracial love affair in Charleston, circa 1918, premiered at the University of Michigan in 1966. The play was staged by Joseph Papp at the New York Public Shakespeare Theater in 1972 and was televised nationally. A Wedding Band, like many of her other works, enthralled some and angered others, prompting periodic banning. Other dramatic works included The Young Martin Luther King; When the Rattlesnake Sounds; Moms, about Moms Mabley; The World on a Hill, about West Indian life; Wine in the Wilderness, about ghetto and middle-class black youths; Mojo; and String, based on the Guy De Maupassant short story “A Piece of String.”
In 1977 Childress published A Short Walk, a novel of a woman growing up in Charleston, going into show business, and ending up in New York. Her better-known novels were for young adults and included A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich (1973), a compelling look at a drug-addicted youth with no happy endings inferred; its banning was part of a case taken to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983. Rainbow Jordan (1980), another young adult novel, centered on a daughter perpetually seeking her mother’s love. Childress received many national and international awards for individual works and for lifetime achievement.
Considering herself a Charlestonian, she visited the state in 1977 with her husband, with whom she wrote A Sea Island Song, a musical and dramatic tribute to the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands. The Wedding Band was produced in the state at the time, and “Alice Childress Weeks” were proclaimed in Columbia and Charleston. She brought to all of her audiences, theatergoers and readers alike, intelligence and an unflinching but perceptive look at people and their problems, regardless of race. Childress was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1990; she died in Queens, New York, on August 14, 1994.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. New York: Greenwood, 1988.
Salem, Dorothy, ed. African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1993.