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Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Alice Childress

I was a drama major and I like to think that I have a pretty good knowledge of American playwrights, so I'm embarrassed that I had not known who Alice Childress was before discovering that it is her centenary this year. She is probably best known for writing the novel A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich, but the huge bulk of her work was plays, and she was the first African-American woman to have a play professionally produced in New York City.

I picked up a copy of Selected Plays, that features five of her best works. It starts with a terrific one-act called "Flora," which shows a segregated railroad station--one half for blacks, the other for whites. A woman is sending her daughter off to New York to be an actress. She strikes up a conversation with a well-meaning white woman, who has contacts in the theater, to help her find a job. But when it turns out she means help finding her work as a domestic, the mother is insulted and devastated. It's a short, piercing work.

The next is "Gold Through the Trees," a revue of various monologues and sketches that represent the black experience in America but probably doesn't read as well as it plays. My favorite play was "Trouble in Mind," a backstage drama about a play about African Americans that is written by a white man and directed by a white man but with a predominantly black cast. It's set in the 50s, so there's a lot of tension--black actors are grateful for any parts, but the director is one of those guys who thinks he's progressive on race but at times is merely patronizing. The moment when the cast turns on him and calls him a racist, which shocks him to the core, is scintillating.

"Wedding Band" is a play that is set in 1918 and concerns an interracial relationship. With the release of Loving later this month it made reading it very timely. A black woman moves into a rowhouse in Charleston, South Carolina, and it is soon known to her neighbors that she has been seeing a white man for about ten years. Of course mixed marriages were illegal in the South, and she holds the dream of going to New York to marry him, but he comes down with influenza at her house and she meets his mother,and they exchange some of the most vicious epithets you're likely to hear.

Finally, there is a one-act called "Wine in the Wilderness," written much later and presented on television in 1972. It is more focused on black people see themselves--there are no white characters. An artist is painting a triptych about black womanhood. One third is an innocent black girl, the middle is the "Abyssinian maiden," who looks like a model. The third is to be the opposite, whom the artist describes as "She's as far from my African queen as a woman and still be female; she's as close to the bottom as you can get without crackin' up . . . she's ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar. . . a poor, dumb chick that's had her behind kicked until it's numb."

He has friends of his search for a model that fits that description and they bring up a woman, and the artist ends up falling in love with her as he paints her, and she spends the night. But when she finds out why she was brought up there, well, you can imagine.

The four straight dramas in this book could easily be put on today and be relevant, and it's a shame in during the 100th anniversary of her birth that no one has, as Alice Childress is a name that should be better known in American drama.

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