“Controversy Only Means Disagreement”:
Alice Childress's Activist Drama
If asked to name important figures of the Civil Rights movement, most Americans would think first of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His eloquent words and memorable voice still echo in the minds of many Americans; his speeches are taught in schools, his life celebrated with a national holiday, and the site of his violent death memorialized as the National Civil Rights Museum. If pressed for more names beyond that of King, the average American might think of politicians—Robert Kennedy, for example—who championed the cause. Or one might cite “ordinary” citizens—Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, the thousands who sat down at lunch counters and marched in the South— those whose heroism and dedication brought about remarkable social change. All of these answers would prove accurate, but they would also be incomplete, for few Americans would think to cite the artists: the playwrights and novelists and musicians whose creative expression provided inspiration and insight to the movement's participants and onlookers alike. Yet one finds it difficult imagining the Civil Rights movement without the artists, without Nina Simone, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, or Lorraine Hansberry. Like Martin Luther King's, their voices and words linger, giving sound and language and personal narratives to the movement.
Unfortunately, creative expression such as theirs is sometimes seen apart from social movements, for the causes they promoted and the political situations in which they were engaged provide necessary context to their work. Many artists fear this association with politics; nothing condemns a novel or play faster than a critic pronouncing it “preachy” or “didactic.” If a playwright is going to plead a cause, he or she should at least have the grace to do so subtly. But some issues, such as civil rights, do not respond well to a subtle treatment. In the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, many African American writers felt a need to be explicitly political by representing the reality of their lives, showing the indignities, the injustice, and the endur