Alice Childress (née Alice Herndon / Louise Henderson)
October 12, 1912 – August 14, 1994
Notable: Novelist and Playwright
According to sources, there are some discrepancies regarding Alice Childress’ name at the time of her birth. One source states that her birth certificate lists her name as “Louise Henderson” but throughout her childhood and up until she married, she used the name “Alice Herndon”. For clarity, I’ll use the name “Alice Herndon”. What is known for certain is that she was born in Charleson, South Carolina to Alonzo and Florence, their last names could not be verified but were likely Henderson or Herndon. Her father, Alonzo earned a living in the insurance industry while her mother, Florence, worked as a seamstress.
When Herndon was nine years old, her parents separated and she was sent to Harlem to live with her maternal grandmother, Eliza White. White, an avid storyteller, developed and encouraged a passion for storytelling in Herndon. The combination of spending time at the library and making up stories with her grandmother would have a tremendous impact on Herndon.
Herndon’s education came to an end after only two years of high school. But her intellectual curiosity and interest in learning drove her to independently continue her education. Herndon saw a Shakespeare play as a teen and was motivated to get involved in the world of theater. And her introduction to mentors such as Venezuela Jones and Shirley Graham Du Bois would inspire her to write.
In the 1930s, Herndon met Alvin Childress, an actor, and the two married on June 1, 1935. The marriage would produce one daughter, Jean. Childress worked menial jobs to help support herself and her family. In 1939, the couple joined Harlem’s American Negro Theatre (ANT) which was home to Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Harry Belafonte. With a strong desire to break into the theater world, Childress performed whatever tasks and jobs needed to be done.
Yet, after a couple of years with ANT, she left the company to delve deeper into writing. She also stopped acting during this period as there were few roles for her. But, shortly before leaving ANT, Childress on a dare from Poitier penned her first play, Florence in a single night. The following year, the play became an off-Broadway production.
Childress’ plays would often feature strong and unconventional female characters. Her early career as a playwright coincided with the growing Civil Rights Movement. Addressing racial issues head-on, Childress’ plays did not shy away from portraying racial conflict onstage and they were some of the only plays at that time with interracial casts.
In 1952, Childress became the first Black woman playwright to have her play professionally produced. A few years later, she almost became the first Black woman to have her play produced on Broadway. Her 1955 play Trouble in Mind was a huge success when it debuted at the Greenwich Mews Theatre. It won an Obie Award making Childress the first Black woman playwright to win the award.
Broadway producers considered moving the play to Broadway but would have required Childress to tone down some aspects of the show to broaden its appeal. Childress was unwilling to make the changes based on her creative principles which resulted in producers passing on the show.
Childress used her creative work in part to share some aspects of the Black experience and make social observations. But she was also very actively involved with real-world cultural programs. Her involvement with individuals and organizations such as Paul Robeson and a Marxist school for adults resulted in Childress being surveilled by the FBI. This experience played a role in Childress hiding some aspects of her life which contributed to the unclear details of her early life.
Childress continued writing and had penned 12 plays by the time of her death. She also had an equally successful career as a novelist. Her best-known work is likely the young adult novel, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973). Touching on multiple controversial topics, the book would be banned by some libraries. Two of her plays would face similar attempts at censorship as some networks declined to air their televised productions.
Over the years, Childress received numerous honorary degrees and awards. In 1994 at the age of 77, Childress died suddenly and unexpectedly from cancer. Her daughter Jean had died similarly from cancer just four years earlier. Childress’ marriage to Alvin ended at some point in the 1950s and she married Nathan Woodward, a musician, in 1957. Trouble in Mind was finally produced on Broadway in 2021 and received 4 Tony Award nominations.
- “Alice Childress.” n.d. Concord Theatricals. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.concordtheatricals.com/a/1387/alice-childress.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2021. “Alice Childress.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. October 8, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alice-Childress.
- Granshaw, Michelle. 2019. “Alice Childress (1916-1994).” BlackPast.org. January 31, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/childress-alice-1916-1994/.
- “The Life and Work of Alice Childress.” n.d. Roundabout Theatre Company. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/upstage-guides-current/upstage-guide-trouble-in-mind/life-work-alice-childress-trouble-in-mind/.
- Mchie, Benjamin. 2021. “Alice Childress, Playwright, and Actress Born.” African American Registry. October 12, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/playwright-alice-childress-born/.
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