Obituary: Alice Childress
Tuesday 30 August 1994
IN NOVEMBER 1955 a satirical comedy which poked fun at white liberals and scorned racial stereotyping opened at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. Forty years later Trouble in Mind, written by Alice Childress, the black actress, playwright and novelist, is still being revived in the United States.
The play, which earned Childress the Village Voice's first Obie Award for an off-Broadway production, focuses on Wiletta Mayer, an actress who rebels against the demeaning racial stereotypes she has been forced to play. It was based on Childress's personal experience. 'Trouble in Mind wasn't about the comedic stereotype we usually think about', Childress said later, 'it was stereotype of thought and attitude. You could dress black characters well and give them good diction, but the ideas remained the same. Seeing people go through these things turned me to this play. I wanted recognition for them.'
Alice Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1916, and was raised and educated in Harlem, New York. She trained as an actress at the American Negro Theatre School of Drama and Stagecraft, and first appeared with the American Negro Theatre in Anna Lucasta (1944) which successfully transferred from Harlem to Broadway and became the longest- running all-black play in Broadway history. Its talented cast also included Hilda Simms, Canada Lee, Georgia Burke, Earle Hyman and Frederick O'Neal. Childress later appeared in the World of Sholom Aleichem (1953) and The Cool World (1960) and in the film Uptight (1968).
It was Childress's grandmother who encouraged her to write. 'My grandmother had no formal education,' Childress said in an interview, 'but she'd say, 'That's interesting, write it down.' I'd say, 'No, I don't want to,' but she'd say, 'Just a little bit.' And I got used to it.' (At the time of her death, Childress was working on a novel based on the lives of her African great-grandmother, who was a slave until the age of 12, and her Scottish-Irish great-grandmother.)
In 1950, with the support and encouragement of the actor and political activist Paul Robeson, Childress opened her own theatre in Harlem with her friend the actress Clarice Taylor. They collaborated on several productions for the theatre, Taylor directing and Childress writing, including Gold Through the Trees (1952), but after a few years it closed.
Childress adapted Guy de Maupassant's short story 'A Piece of String' into a one-act drama called String (1969). Also in 1969 she wrote the book for the musical play Young Martin Luther King. In 1971 she wrote Mojo: a black love story and in 1987 Moms, starring Clarice Taylor as the vaudeville comedienne Jackie 'Moms' Mabley. In 1972 Childress's play Wedding Band (written in 1965) was produced by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Set in South Carolina at the end of the First World War, the play focused on an inter-racial love affair. In 1977 the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame honoured Childress with their first Paul Robeson Medal of Distinction for 'Outstanding Achievement in Theatre Arts'.
For American television Childress wrote Wine in the Wilderness (1969) and adapted her play Wedding Band for ABC in 1974. Variety described this production as 'an unusual combination of courage and taste in the welter of the prime-time pulp grind'. In 1977 Childress adapted her novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich for the cinema. Directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Cicely Tyson, this family drama centred on the painful rehabilitation of a drug- addicted black teenager. Two years later Childress's novel A Short Walk, chronicling a black woman's life from the turn of the century to 1944, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Sadly, very little of Childress's work has been seen in Britain. In 1965 she took part in a discussion programme called Negro Writing Today with James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Leroi Jones for BBC radio. The programme was broadcast as part of the anthology series The Negro in America - as was the first British performance of Trouble in Mind. Produced by DG Bridson, the cast was headed by the West End musical star Elisabeth Welch in a rare dramatic role.
It was not until 1992 that Trouble in Mind was given its British stage premiere, at the Tricycle Theatre in London. This time the role of Wiletta was played by Carmen Munroe, one of the stars of the Channel 4 sit-com Desmond's. The theatre critic Irving Wardle wrote of the production, 'In this show, for once, the theatre is telling the truth about itself.'
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