Alice Childress was an African-American actress, playwright and drama theorist. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 12, 1916, and died in 1994. Raised in Harlem from age 5 by her maternal grandmother, Eliza Campbell, Childress was encouraged to write from an early age.
Her education was not conventional since she was forced to leave high school after three years, following the death of her mother and grandmother. Her literary skills were honed at the public library while she worked to support herself.
Childress entered the theater world as an actress, receiving "on the job" training. She was instrumental in helping to set up the American Negro Theater (ANT) in the 1940s. ANT was situated in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Her experience in the company paved the way for an extensive career as a playwright.
When racism adversely affected the company, Childress determined to express herself through writing, to vindicate black people. Her work continued to provide theater experiences that critics describe as "by, for and about black people." Candle in the Wind revealed an account of an ordeal caused by racism and a black-listing system. While she had started her career as an actress with ANT, moved on to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony award, Childress describes the feeling of being alone in her ideas and deciding to write.
Florence in Harlem, performed by ANT in 1949 (and published in 1950), marked her professional career as a playwright. Samuel Hay, in African American Theater, commented that Florence "radically altered the Africa-America ‘Mama' stereotype." The character, Mrs. Whitney (‘Mama'), became the new black heroine created by Childress. The playwright focused on her primary goal: to present the black image, especially of women, in an empowered light.
Childress believed in drama as a vital tool for social change, having familiarized herself with literature of this nature. Moreover, she looked to the Bible, as well as books on African-American history and Shakespeare as examples of art utilized to express truth. The poets she favored were Walt Whitman and Paul Laurence Dunbar, who portrayed humans' unlimited potential.
Her work was prolific and spanned a broad period. Elizabeth Brown Guillory in Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (1988) states that Childress has been the "only black woman in America whose plays have been written, produced and published over four decades." Although she received many awards for her plays, the works of Alice Childress are not necessarily displayed in bookstores nor do they always appear in publishing catalogues.
Childress's plays have had a significant impact on dramatic literature in America and provide significant content for critical evaluation. Plays by Childress have been described by critics analyzing her work, as "literature to be performed." The notion of playwright as storyteller and someone who interprets reality is acknowledged through her writing.
A group of critics (Carlton and Barbara Molette, C.W.E. Bigsby, Samuel Hay, Genevieve Fabre, Mance Williams, Loften Mitchell and Emory Lewis) assert that Childress' dramatic canon provides an important contribution to "the literary and theatrical histories of how drama functions in American culture and society."
Childress has been described as a significant dramatic theorist and a "consummate craftsperson" by critics. Theories of black self-determination are presented through themes inherent in her plays, notably Wine in the Wilderness, Florence, Trouble In Mind and Wedding Band.
Her stories present experiences of racial injustice and the fight for human rights. Issues of black women are revealed, depicting concerns related to legal, social, educational, political and economic struggles in the American world. "Political poetics" of women's drama is a category into which authors place her work.
In essays that Alice Childress wrote between 1951 and 1969 her theory of black self-determinist theater is elucidated further. Her views on the meaning and function of theater for African Americans provide commentary on her subjective individual and the collective experience. The aim, to vindicate black identity, is evident in the method which she claims is the humanist function of black theater. This provides a further role in terms of the political nature within the history of American theater. The view she propounded was unique at the time of the 1940s and 1950s: that real-life situations need to be presented in the plays. The conditions and circumstances of black people through the dramatic form expressed a central core of what was valued as a dominant function of black theater.