Who’s Afraid of Alice Childress?, Part 1

Trouble in Mind… now what’s that about?”

Some of our patrons may have wondered this when first hearing the title in PlayMakers’ current season. It is a lesser-known masterwork of a slightly better-known author, Alice Childress (1916-1994).

Childress probably reached her widest audience with the 1973 novel and 1978 film of A Hero Ain’t Nothin but a Sandwich. This play though seems to be enjoying a revival in the 21st century. It’s funny, fresh, profound, and surprisingly timely for a play written two years before the first Edsel rolled off the showroom floor and into comic history. Assuming there isn’t just one spot in our dramatic canon for an African-American female writer before 1975, why isn’t this play included in our drama anthologies, say, between Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and J.B.? Part of the answer may be found in the play’s production history.

Given the cultural environment of the 1950s, the play was a breakthrough for its time. It opened on November 3, 1955 at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, a 200-seat Off-Broadway house and played for 91 shows. This was a first for the race, so to speak—the first mainstream, professionally produced play (that is, with unionized actors) by an African-American female playwright. Other firsts had preceded this one and still others would succeed it, but this was a big deal. Not so interested in such designations, Alice Childress just wanted her plays to be done and done truthfully. Concerned about deep-seated stereotyping, she directed this production herself. Ah, but there was a problem, said the producers: the ending. Audiences—white audiences, that was—weren’t going to like this unsettling ending. In a bewildering case, as Childress anthologist and PlayMakers company member Kathy Perkins notes, of life imitating art that one can only appreciate after seeing the play, here was this dispute between the cautious white producers and the righteous black female asserting the need for a truthful ending. She compromised and wrote a happier ending for the production. As was bound to happen, The New York Times review came out with strong praise for the play, all except for the ending. The play had been optioned for Broadway, and Childress struggled to revise, but ultimately negotiations broke down. Burned by the experience, she vowed never again to cave artistically to producer pressure. She went back to her original ending, but had lost some steam in promoting the play in the process. As a result, the first Broadway play by an African-American female would be 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.

Photo from 1955 New York Times review

Mind you, African-Americans had long performed on Broadway—acting, dancing and singing. Trouble in Mind takes us into the first week of rehearsal of just such a Broadway play called Chaos in Belleville, a melodrama about a Southern lynching. We meet Wiletta, the lead actress in the play, middle-aged and still enamored of stage life. The company is interracial, and they generally consider themselves more sophisticated than the Southerners they are portraying. And they are certainly more sophisticated than the painfully-stereotyped caricatures provided them by the absent white author. While Chaos in Belleville is a satirical creation of Childress, it is close to the mark for what constituted mainstream entertainment in the first half of the 20th Century. The African-American actors here are quite accustomed to playing such derogated projections of their kind. They accept it, though, for need of work and for love of performing. Even today this predicament persists, as Kathy Perkins notes, with people of color “still being portrayed stereotypically on both stage and film or just being erased out of history as in the current film Exodus.” As Wiletta says, “it’s the man’s play, the man’s money and the man’s theater, so what you gonna do?”

The Group Theatre’s 1931 production of Paul Green’s House of Connelly (Paul Green Foundation)
Now our play-within-a-play is not without its virtues. It is well-intended with an anti-lynching theme, a genre that both white and black playwrights had actively embraced since the first part of the 20th Century. All people of goodwill could rally against such domestic terrorism. Our very own progressive-minded Paul Green wrote many such “Negro dramas” with sympathetic portrayals of African-American characters, most famously his Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom (1927). More importantly though, in our consideration of Alice Childress’ development, is the history of African-American playwrights emerging in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, especially in Harlem and Washington DC. These women and men, such as Angelina Grimke, Willis Richardson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes and Eulalie Spence, contributed to a growing stream of noteworthy dramatic writing, responding to such calls as W.E.B. DuBois’ famous manifesto seeking plays “about us, by us, for us, near us” and Alain Locke’s cultivation of Negro folk drama at Howard University. Works by these playwrights, as well as by Green and others, would be performed by thousands of amateur Negro theatre groups founded in schools, clubs and communities around the country in the times before the Great Depression dried up much of that stream.

Click here for Part 2 of Mark’s in-depth look at Trouble in Mind, onstage January 21 to February 8. Click here to get your tickets!