This Day In Writing History
On October 12th, 1920, the famous African American novelist, playwright, and actress Alice Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina. When Alice was nine years old, her parents separated. She moved to New York to live with her grandmother in Harlem. Her grandmother, who was uneducated, encouraged her to develop her talents in and passions for reading and writing.
After she graduated high school, Alice took up drama and studied acting at the American Negro Theatre. She won acclaim as an actress on the black and off-Broadway stages and appeared in numerous productions. A social activist, she also formed the first union for off-Broadway actors. She continued her acting career, but writing was her main passion, so she switched to play writing.
When Alice's first play Florence (1949) was produced in 1950, she became the first black woman to have a play produced off-Broadway. Set in the waiting room of a segregated railway station in the Jim Crow South, the play's main character is Miss Whitney, an elderly black woman whose daughter, Florence, ran away to Harlem hoping to become a successful actress. Worried about her, Miss Whitney, accompanied by her other daughter Marge, hopes to persuade Florence to come home.
Alice Childress' 1955 play, Trouble In Mind, made her the first black woman to win an Obie award. The play, a masterpiece of scathing satire, is actually a play-within-a-play. A multiracial cast of actors is rehearsing a play called Chaos in Belleville. The play was written by a white playwright and is filled with derogatory, stereotyped black characters. The black actors must deal not only with having to play stereotypical black characters, but also with a condescending, racist white director.
Childress followed Trouble In Mind with her most controversial play, Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White), better known by its shortened title, Wedding Band. First published in 1966, the play was so controversial that no one dared produce it until 1972, when it opened in New York. Set in 1918 South Carolina, the play featured Childress' most potent attack on racism. Herman, a white man, and Julia, a black woman, are very much in love and want to marry. Unfortunately, it's illegal for them do so, as interracial marriage is against the law in South Carolina.
The play opens with Herman and Julia celebrating their tenth anniversary as a couple. They want to leave the South and move North where they can legally marry, but Herman must stay until he repays his mother the money she loaned him to buy his bakery. Meanwhile, the couple faces racist harassment from whites and blacks alike, who both disapprove of their relationship. When Wedding Band was produced for television and aired on the ABC TV network in 1973, several of the network's affiliate stations refused to broadcast it.
In addition to her plays, Alice Childress wrote several novels. Her second and most famous novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, was published in 1973. Aimed at young adult readers, the novel told the brutally honest tale of Benjie Johnson, a 13-year-old heroin addict. It was the first young adult novel to deal with the subject of heroin addiction. Benjie Johnson lives in a tough inner city neighborhood with his mother, her boyfriend, and his grandmother.
Seeking a release from his stressful life, Benjie begins cutting class and hanging out with a group of older boys who are into drugs. He smokes marijuana with them and succumbs to peer pressure to try heroin. Benjie quickly turns from casual user to full fledged heroin addict, first denying that he's an addict, then doing anything to support his habit, including stealing.
The novel uses alternating first person narratives to look at Benjie's addiction from different people's perspectives, including his family members, his teachers, his pusher, and of course, Benjie himself. Controversial and often appearing on banned and challenged book lists, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich would be adapted as an acclaimed independent feature film in 1978.
All together, Alice Childress wrote ten plays and five novels, establishing herself as one of the best 20th century African American writers. She died in 1994 at the age of 73.
Quote Of The Day
“I continue to create because writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance, a way to light a candle in a gale wind: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” - Alice Childress
Today's video features a clip from the acclaimed 1978 feature film adaptation of Alice Childress' controversial and classic young adult novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. Enjoy!