Alice Childress was born Alice Herndon on October 12, 1912, in Charleston, South Carolina. After her parents separated in 1925, she moved to Harlem, New York. There, she lived with her grandmother, Eliza Campbell White. Her grandmother exposed her to art and encouraged her to write.
After enduring two years of high school, Herndon dropped out. She began working low-paying jobs. Meanwhile, she also became involved in Harlem’s thespian scene. In the 1930s, she married actor Alvin Childress. They had a daughter together prior to their divorce. Although they separated, she maintained the last name, Childress.
In 1941, Childress joined the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem. She played various roles, including actress, stage director, personnel director, and more. In the 11 years that she dedicated to ANT, she successfully fought for union off-Broadway contracts. These contracts ensured that stage actors would be paid during the off-Broadway seasons.
Childress performed in a number of plays throughout the 40s and early 50s. She acted in plays, like Anna Lucasta(1944). Once that play transitioned to Broadway, her performance earned her a Tony Award nomination. The Tony Award is the highest award one could win in the thespian world.
In 1949, Childress wrote her first play, titled Florence. This early display of her work encompassed many of the themes, like Black female empowerment, dismantling Black stereotypes, and interracial politics, that would re-appear in her later works. Over the next three years, she wrote two more plays and earned the title of the first professionally produced Black woman playwright.
Childress pioneered another ‘first’ for Black women with her play, Trouble in Mind. At the end of the 1955-1956 off-Broadway season, her play won the Obie Award for Best Original Play. She became the first Black woman to win this award.
In 1973, Childress rose to even greater prominence. She secured her career as a novelist with her book, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. Her novel appealed to the young adult (YA) demographic specifically because it tackled themes like racism, drug use, teen pregnancy, and homosexuality. In 1978, she adapted her novel into a screenplay. From there, she continued writing YA fiction novels, adult novels, and a collection of short stories.
Because she often wrote about racial tensions between Blacks and Whites in America, Childress’ written works were often the center of controversy. Many television networks refused to air her 1969 production, Wine in the Wilderness. Her book, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was banned by many school districts as well.
Over the course of her career, Childress won several honors. She received writing grants from Rockefeller, earned a graduate medal from the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, and won a Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Association of Theatre in Higher Education. Alice Childress died on August 14, 1994. She was 82 years old.
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