Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Alice Childress (1916-1994) followed the well-traveled Carolina-to-Manhattan road of the Great Migration and became a fixture on the New York City theater scene of the 1940s and ’50s. Moving from high school to the American Negro Theater (ANT) in 1939, she worked with the Harlem-based company for a full eleven years, acting alongside Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier in such productions as Abram Hill and John Silvera’s On Strivers Row (1940), Theodore Brown’s Natural Man (1941), and Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta (1944). After Anna Lucasta shifted to Broadway, Childress was nominated for a Tony Award. Not the last well-respected African American actress to find good roles hard to come by, Childress began to write eclectic dramas of her own, inspired in part by her friend Poitier’s bet that a well-crafted play could not be written overnight. Florence (1949), the result of Childress’s quick work, won the wager with Poitier and was produced by the ANT. Childress’s earliest full-length play, Trouble in Mind (1955), received the first Obie Award presented to an African American woman. Wedding Band, written in 1966, dealt with the explosive subject of interracial love, and was not produced in New York until 1972. Around this time, Childress began concentrating on young adult fiction, publishing A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1973), a bestselling novel about a 13-year-old heroin user, still banned from some school collections. Like Lorraine Hansberry, her fellow playwright in the leftwing orbit of ANT and Paul Robeson’s journal Freedom, Childress was monitored through an individual FBI file. A resourceful Bureau agent, this file shows, dug deep for traces of Childress in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.
FBI documents studying Alice Childress.
Material is in the public domain.
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