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Dramaturg’s Note: Childress in the Wilderness

"Alice Childress is a splendid playwright, a veteran—indeed, a pioneer."

Wine in the Wilderness:

Dramaturg’s Note: Childress in the Wilderness

Alice Childress, New York Public Library Digital Collections

“There is a tragedy here that cannot be underestimated. Alice Childress is a splendid playwright, a veteran—indeed, a pioneer. She has won awards, acclaim, and everything but consistent productions… We may salute and savor the glory of the black theatrical pioneer, but in a land where materialism is all-important, the real salutes take longer.” — Ruby Dee

Announcing her death in 1994, the New York Times headline read, “Alice Childress, 77, a Novelist;” the full obituary allowed that she wrote some plays, too. While Childress would likely have objected to that order, having devoted the bulk of her life to playwriting, the “Paper of Record’s” choice is understandable. As a playwright, Childress’s story is more difficult to measure: hers was a progressive voice too often hemmed in by anxious, benighted producers, a mainstage talent shoehorned into black box realities.

The story began, promisingly enough, at a little Harlem theatre with a big mission, the American Negro Theatre—a company so hardworking members called themselves the ANTs and were expected to function as actors, directors, designers, and box office managers. "The American Negro Theatre Company," Childress recalled, "worked ten years without salary, four nights per week, keeping the same acting company together, until the boot-straps wore out”. When Childress expressed her discontent with the quality of the material in general and with the quality of roles for women past the ingénue stage in particular, her colleagues (including fellow ANT Sidney Poitier) challenged her to write it herself. The next day, Childress arrived at the theater with her first play, Florence—a gem of a piece centered around a character who would seldom be granted more than a line or two in most plays of that era. From the beginning, her work displayed her talent for marrying rich, layered characterization and sharp insight into the political forces shaping those characters.

After ANT disbanded, Childress along with several members joined forces with the Committee for the Negro in the Arts to keep providing opportunities for African-American artists and audiences at Club Baron, a Harlem nightclub-turned-community theatre. Her pieces written for this venue spoke to the struggle for freedom in the U.S. and in Africa, while incorporating song, dance, and live music—a combination that was popular both with the crowds and the few critics who made the trip uptown. "Alice Childress seems to know more about language and drama than most people who write for theatre today," wrote Freedom magazine's reviewer Lorraine Hansberry in 1952.

Then came Childress’s first big break. Greenwich Mews, a downtown theatre with a progressive cachet, had an open slot in their 1955-56 season. Childress had the play to fill it—her first full-length play, Trouble in Mind, a story of an interracial cast and crew who come together to produce a play about racial injustice in the South and instead find themselves caught up in racial tensions of their own. The Greenwich Mews producers snapped it up.

Soon, however, Childress found her play hitting uncomfortably close to home. Deep into the rehearsal process, the producers became uncomfortable with the play’s ending and demanded that Childress craft a more hopeful resolution with a unified cast of the play within a play and a redemptive arc for the antagonist (a liberal, white director). It was a resolution Childress could not believe in, but—faced with the prospect of scrapping the production so close to opening—she acquiesced. The play was a hit, with mostly positive reviews (though some made a point of objecting to the “claptrap” ending) and sold-out audiences. Even better, Broadway producers came knocking, and soon it was announced that Alice Childress would be the first African-American woman to be produced on the Great White Way.

That announcement, however, turned out to be premature. The new would-be producers had more conditions and demanded still more rewrites, until the playwright “couldn’t recognize the play one way or the other.” After two years, Childress withdrew the play and restored her original ending for publication.

Also premature was The New York Times’ report heralding a Broadway production of her next big work, Wedding Band, which had been snapped up immediately after its first reading in 1963 for production the next year. Those plans also fell through. And though the play was produced in Michigan and in Chicago—and optioned for Broadway seven times—it took nearly a decade to reach New York. The subject matter—an interracial relationship—was controversial, certainly, but the sticking point seemed to be very similar to the one which had stopped her earlier piece: not enough attention being paid to the (white, male) lover, too much Black everywoman at the center.

The Black writer explains pain to those who inflict it. Those who repress and exclude us also claim the right to instruct us on how best to react to repression. All too often we follow their advice. —Alice Childress

In the wake of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Boston public television affiliate WGBH began plans for a new series, “On Being Black,” which would explore the Black experience through the lens of various African-American writers and artists. In particular, they were seeking “plays by black writers for black audiences.” In 1969, the series debuted their first commissioned piece, Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness.

If the form and focus owed much to the parameters of its commissioning agent, Wine in the Wilderness was also a harbinger of the new turn Childress was taking in her playwriting. While still deeply personal, deeply political, and deeply committed to telling Black women’s stories, Childress now shifted these women away from the terrain of interracial relations to explore more fully the navigation of class, gender, and racism-related tensions within African-American communities.

The new opening of public and private coffers that made WGBH’s program possible also fueled a resurgence of Black theatres across the nation. In the latter half of the 1960s, at least five prominent companies sprang up in New York—one of them, the New Heritage Repertory Theatre, founded by ANT alum Roger Furman. In 1970, Furman mounted the first stage production of Wine in the Wilderness (on a ticket with her brand new one-act, Mojo).

Early in her writing career, Childress had advocated for “a Negro People’s Theatre…powerful enough to inspire, lift, and eventually create a complete desire for the liberation of all oppressed peoples”, and if her rhetoric tempered, her belief in the necessity of Black theatres remained firm. Still, she was sometimes frustrated by the constraints of writing to fit into the venues in which those companies operated. I like writing full-length plays,” she confessed, “but I saw a need for short plays, because so many little theatres in black communities…need for many reasons, which we can understand, short plays. And also they kept writing me for something for their group of eight people to do or that they had forty minutes on a program or they had an hour”.

It was, perhaps, this need to write as expansively as she craved, without having to compromise her vision, which led Childress to take up novel writing. And while Childress never stopped writing or identifying as a playwright, it is nevertheless true that her second path garnered her the attention and acclaim she so richly deserved. ♦

Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre

Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series

Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading

Childress, Alice. “But I do My Thing.” New York Times, 2 Feb. 1969, pp. 148.

Childress, Alice. “A Candle in a Gale Wind.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books/ Doubleday, 1984, pp. 111-116. 

Childress, Alice. “For a Strong Negro People’s Theatre.” Daily Worker, 16 Feb. 1951.

Mitchell, Loften. “Ruby Dee.” Voices of the Black Theatre, James T. White and Co., 1975. 

Perkins, Kathy A. “Introduction.” Selected Plays, edited by Kathy A. Perkins, Northwestern University Press, 2011, pp. ix - xxxv.