Telling the Truth: Alice Childress as Theorist and Playwright

By Dugan, Olga | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Telling the Truth: Alice Childress as Theorist and Playwright


Dugan, Olga, The Journal of African American History


In Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (1988), Elizabeth Brown-Guillory declared that "Alice Childress is the only black woman in America whose plays have been written, produced, and published over a period of four decades." (1) Childress wrote seventeen plays. Six have a history of both production and publication. (2) Four of these plays, appearing on stage between 1949 and 1969 when she was writing and working exclusively in and for the American theatre, have procured for her many coveted awards, and great visibility. But it is still the norm to walk into popular bookstores and not see any plays by Alice Childress on the shelves. And it is possible to finger through publishers' catalogues under author, title, or subject and not find a listing for Childress, or discover that the few single editions of her plays have long been and remain out of print. This should not be since over the last twenty years, Childress's plays have been important subject matter for critical evaluation of th e history of dramatic literature in the United States.

Through historical-critical analysis of modern American drama in general and of black drama in particular, as well as black feminist criticism, feminist theories of dramatic criticism, and a resurgent wave of curricular inclusion of "drama as literature," critics have analyzed Childress's plays ultimately as "literature to be performed." But they also maintain in their analyses the fabulist view of the playwright as a storyteller, as an interpreter of reality. In their works, Samuel Hay, C. W. E. Bigsby, Carlton and Barbara Molette, Mance Williams, Genevieve Fabre, Emory Lewis, and Loften Mitchell reevaluate the themes of racial injustice and the struggle for human rights at the center of the stories Childress's plays tell. (3) They all conclude that critics need to reconsider her plays as serious contributions to the literary and theatrical histories of how drama functions in American culture and society. (4)

Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Margaret B. Wilkerson, John O. Killens, Trudier Harris, Rosemary Curb, and Jeanne-Marie A. Miller have written books and articles examining the generation of Childress's strong black female protagonists, and her subjectivity of black women's issues concerning legal, educational, social, political, and economic struggle in this country. These scholars link Childress's plays to a literary tradition of black women writers from the New Negro Renaissance to modern and contemporary movements. (5)

In the same vein, Gayle Austin, Helene Keyssar, and Janet Brown explore plot and theme as ideological structures of a feminist premise and method of presentation in drama. They include Childress's plays among those of women dramatists from the United States and Europe in studies that reveal a dialogue on the "political poetics" of women's drama. (6)

Finally, anthologists Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Margaret B. Wilkerson, Man Evans, James V. Hatch and Ted Shine, and Lindsay Patterson reveal Childress's significance as a dramatic theorist and consummate craftsperson. Moreover, these anthologists have made the plays, at least those already previously published and produced, available for study that has led to a number of academic essays and doctoral theses. (7)

This writer aligns herself with the scholars, teachers, and playwrights who have given voice to the demand for a critical hearing, long overdue for African American theorist and playwright Alice Childress, and her contributions to American drama. In 1993, just a year before her death, when I told Ms. Childress personally about my own literary historical studies of the plays, she only smiled at me and replied firmly, "tell the truth." I have taken up the challenge to do so. In this article I discuss a theory of black self-determinist theatre that emerges from the essays Childress wrote over two decades. This theory establishes the central theme of black self-determination in Wine in the Wilderness, representative of the three other plays, Florence, Trouble in Mind, and Wedding Band, that account for the greater portion of Childress's significant contributions to the history of American drama and to the African American intellectual tradition. …

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