Fame, at least lasting fame — the your-work-goes-down-in-history kind, often accompanied by fat royalty payments — is a club that thinks of itself as an unbiased meritocracy, blind to everything but aesthetic innovation and popular success. It’s never quite worked out that way. When we look at the past, we still see generations of great talents who never quite got their due critically or commercially, many of them left relatively unsung. In this ongoing series, our critics pick artists they feel remain underappreciated and tell their stories and sing their praises.
When she was living in Harlem, the portraitist Alice Neel painted Alice Childress. In the 1950 picture, the playwright’s strapless dress — deep electric blue and rustling with taffeta — is rendered in thick, almost crayoned strokes. The medallion around her neck looks cloudy and distorted; the flowers behind her are Impressionist smudges. But her head, topped with a sweet little red hat, is outlined as finely as a Pre-Raphaelite profile. Childress is serene and queenly, gazing inward while looking out a window.
Any list of great American playwrights is incomplete without Alice Childress — her cool eye saw deep into history, into the theater, into blackness, into whiteness. She has been credited with many “firsts”: the first black woman playwright to have a professional Equity cast (in 1952 for Gold Through the Trees), one of the first to direct her own work Off Broadway, the first to win an Obie (in 1956 for Trouble in Mind, though the early Obie records are shoddy and it’s not clear if she in fact actually won). She talked about her historic position in 1972. “I just hate to see the ‘first’ Negro, the ‘first’ black, the ‘first’ one,” she said. “It’s almost like it’s an honor rather than a disgrace. We should be the 50th and the 1,000th by this point.” And yet, writes her anthologist, Kathy A. Perkins, she was conscious of having prepared the way for others.
Everyone should be reviving Childress’s work. The dramas are powerful body blows full of beautifully observed human detail, hard swings in several genres. In a career of mostly realistic plays, she also wrote epic pageantry like the history-making Gold Through the Trees. (The title is from Harriet Tubman’s recollection of escaping into Pennsylvania: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”) Tubman appears in one scene, as do a woman from Ur, a slavers’ assault on a kingdom in West Africa, and a village in apartheid South Africa. Though they’re rarely revived, such music-filled, episodic revues of black life were a notable form in that era: Shirley Graham Du Bois wrote one (1932’s Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro), and so did Zora Neale Hurston. But Gold Through the Trees slides from realism into poetry and back in a way that feels very modern. It will remind some of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Childress was writing a choreopoem before that was a term.
Her two masterpieces, though, are realistic: Trouble in Mind and Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (1966). The latter is wry, bracing, romantic — and then bitter as gall. In Wedding Band, the barrier to marriage between Julia, a seamstress, and Herman, her longtime white lover, in 1918 seems primarily external: Miscegenation was still illegal in the World War I–era South. But when Herman falls ill and his vicious mother comes to pry him loose, we see how deeply racist tyranny corrodes. Herman adores Julia, and he means well. But lessons he learned as a child come out, and she finally rouses to fury. “Out! Out!,” Julia shouts. “Name and protection … he can’t gimme either one. I’m gon’ get down on my knees and scrub where they walked … what they touched … with brown soap … hot lye-water … clean the whiteness outta my house!” Wedding Band feels very much like a precursor to Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play in the way it razors away sentiment and probes illegal interracial love. But it has none of Slave Play’s insouciance; instead, it is completely earnest … and heartbroken.
If people have seen a contemporary Childress production, it’s probably Trouble in Mind, which has a sturdy recent history — Two River Theater, the Yale School of Drama, PlayMakers Rep, the Intiman — though, absurdly, it has never come to Broadway. (Producers showed interest when she wrote it, but only if she changed the ending.) Having been an actress with the American Negro Theater, Childress drew on her life for this knife-sharp backstage comic drama that touches on labor issues, New York segregation, white liberal “derailing,” intergenerational conflict, and the artist’s soul. Her strategy was to construct a sort of new commedia by filling the play’s “rehearsal room” with archetypes we recognize: the up-and-coming Sidney Poitier wannabe, the white director who is sure his play will solve racism, the naïve I-don’t-see-color ingénue, the seething stage manager. Amid all their hilarious (and pointed) predictability is Wiletta, a beautiful, tragic character — a middle-aged black actress struggling in a changing world that still keeps her down. “I’ve always wanted to do somethin’ real grand,” she says. “To stand forth at my best.” It’s a sublime part that requires a woman of experience, and Wiletta ought to be the plum at the peak of a great career, the way Willy Loman is for men.
Why didn’t Childress stay a theatrical household name? Like Hurston, she became a novelist, successful with books like A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, later made into a film. She wrote a screenplay about Fannie Lou Hamer (unproduced), a musical about the Sea Islands called Gullah, a bioplay about Moms Mabley. But despite working well into the 1980s, Childress never got the mainstream cultural penetration of, say, her contemporary Lorraine Hansberry. Perhaps it’s because Childress wrote plays that centered on black women or because Poitier never starred in a movie of her play (as he did with A Raisin in the Sun) or because Broadway producers kept optioning her work and then killing the productions because she refused to make them less “risky.” It’s enough, probably, to simply say that her omission from the Broadway stage and the American syllabus is unjust — and ought to be remedied.
*This article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
More From 'The Undersung'
- What We Lost When Euzhan Palcy Left Hollywood
- Euzhan Palcy Remembers the Fight to Make A Dry White Season in Hollywood
- The Best New Novel Was Written 90 Years Ago
- Clare Torry’s Voice Is Seared Into Your Brain Whether You Know It or Not
- Gillian Armstrong and Her Protagonists Redefined the Modern Movie Heroine