Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Re-Reading Alice Childress

Patricia R. Schroeder

Until quite recently, playwright and novelist Alice Childress has received relatively little critical attention. When her plays attracted scholarly notice at all, it was often the sort that labelled her work in a limited way, thereby ghettoizing her plays and paving the way for further critical neglect. She has been described, for example, as a didactic black activist sometimes given to "sermonizing" ( Gelb23, Oliver105) whose plays "would be better if she did not assault race prejudice at every turn" ( Abramson204); as a sentimental writer of melodrama ( Barnes 30) whose plays look "like a story wrenched from the pages of what used to be known as a magazine for women" ( Watt 163); as an old-fashioned photographic realist ( Barnes30); and as a writer of sometimes convincing characters but of undramatic plots ( Kerr322). Given that Childress is the sole African-American woman playwright to have written, produced, and published plays over the past four decades ( Brown-Guillory, Wines98), that she has won an Obie (for Trouble in Mind 1955), and that several of her plays have received television productions ( Trouble in Mind by the BBC in 1956, Wedding Band by ABC in 1966, Wine in the Wilderness by WGBH of Boston in 1969), this critical neglect is hard to fathom.1 Even contemporary feminist critics have largely overlooked her contributions to American theatre. With a few notable exceptions, feminist drama critics have paid scant attention to Childress' plays.2

Given the history of feminist drama theory in the United States, however, this feminist critical neglect can be traced to several possible sources. First, the earliest feminist critics to notice Childress focused on her acting career and the dearth of good roles that led her to playwriting. They saw her primarily as a liberal feminist interested in creating good roles for African-American actresses and providing a role model for aspiring African-American female playwrights.3 As a result, they often overlooked the potentially revolutionary content of her work. Second, most feminist drama theorists are white, and as Elsa Barkley Brown and others have pointed out, white feminists have not always acknowledged that race is a component of gender, that "being a woman is, in fact, not extractable from the context in which one is a woman--[from] race, class, time, and place" ( Brown300). White feminists like myself do not always recognize the feminist implications of African-American women's plays; we are still training ourselves to recognize how the differences among women challenge the unexamined assumptions we bring to our reading or

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