Trouble in Mind Notes

Who was the first woman to win an Obie Award for Best Play? How about the first black woman to direct an Off-Broadway play? The first black female playwright to have a professionally produced New York play? The first to have a play optioned for Broadway (though it ultimately wasn’t performed)? The answer to all of this trivia is one woman, one writer, one director, one actor: Alice Childress.

The details of Childress’s life are surprisingly hard to pin down. Biographies vary between dating her birth in 1916 or 1920—Childress herself later confirmed 1916. Various biographical sources give her maiden name to be Alice Herndon, but Childress herself claimed that her birth certificate read Louise Henderson. But she was firmly Alice Childress by the time she began making a name for herself in the black theatre scene, thanks to her 1934 marriage to Alvin Childress, later famous for his turn as Amos in the Amos and Andy television series. The pair had a daughter, then divorced in 1957.

We do know that Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and that she was sent to live with her grandmother in Harlem at age 9. We also know that Childress was forced to drop out of high school to start making money. In 1939 (probably—some sources say 1940 or 1941), she became an original member of the American Negro Theatre, a community theatre group which gained fame for transferring one of the first entirely black casts to Broadway in a play called Anna Lucasta, in which Childress performed. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Tony Award for her performance.

Anna Lucasta is a drama about a young girl who has turned to prostitution seeking acceptance and forgiveness from her family. Playwright Philip Yordan originally wrote it as the story of a Polish immigrant family, but when no theatres would touch it, it was brought to the American Negro Theatre and rewritten for a black cast. Many believe that Childress’s experiences working under Yordan and white director Harry Wagstaff Gribble were the inspiration for her backstage drama Trouble in Mind.

Later works of Childress’s included Wedding Band, whose depiction of an interracial relationship was found so inappropriate that no New York City theatre would produce it until Joe Papp put together a television version in 1973. Even then, several networks refused to air it. Childress periodically enters the news thanks to her young adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, which has been the center of multiple banning attempts by school libraries, due to its gritty depiction of a teenage drug addict. Childress dedicated her career to depicting the multiplicities of African American life, and the frequently negative responses to her work reveal the immense political power of an artist’s voice. In fact, Childress’s works were so influential, she was placed under secret government surveillance in the 1950s for suspected communist and anti-American links.

Trouble in Mind was Childress’s fourth play, though it was the first to receive a full Off-Broadway production. Childress and co-director/leading actress Clarice Taylor were the first black female directors of an Off-Broadway play. The play won an Obie Award (another first for Childress: the first female playwright to win the Best Play title) and received critical praise, so much so that it was snapped up for Broadway production… with the caveat that the ending be rewritten. The positive reception wasn’t enough insurance for Broadway producers, they needed a less aggressive and more upbeat tone, plus a new title: So Early Monday Morning. Childress attempted to comply, but gave up after two years. This explains why the published edition of the play sets the action in 1957, even though the play premiered in 1955: for Childress, the passage of two years altered nothing material about the social, sexual, and racial politics of the play.

In fact, the questions that Childress grapples with are still pressing today. The representation of women and people of color onstage has, unfortunately, not advanced very far beyond the dilemmas Wiletta faces: is it asking too much that representations of minority groups be thoughtful and well-rounded, when even appearing onstage at all is seen by some as a victory for equality? Is the question of artistic depiction itself trivial when there are still serious real-world injustices to be combated, or are the stories we tell as important as the actions we take? And how often are the very people who profess the most sympathy and understanding those who are least willing to examine their own prejudices?

Serious as these questions are, Childress frames them with humor, drawn both from the ridiculously bad Southern drama the characters are rehearsing for, and from Childress’s unflinching deconstruction of the white characters’ well-intentioned ignorance. In an era when simply presenting a mixed-race cast was remarkable, it is stunning to consider the extent of Childress’s boldness in her frank discussion of the difficult-to-eradicate forms of racism which well-meaning, liberal-minded people continue to perpetuate today. The questions she raises are no less uncomfortable in 2013 than they were when the play was deemed too harsh for Broadway in 1955.

When Childress was complimented for being the first African American woman to win an Obie Award, she replied that she would be proud when she was the hundredth African American woman to be recognized for her talents, not the first. Childress was far more interested in justice and equality than in making a name for herself. But Childress’s groundbreaking voice deserves acknowledgement, and Trouble in Mind is an example of her witty and probing perspective, which was perhaps too far ahead of its time to be appreciated in its day. This may be why Alice Childress’s contributions to the American theatre have been so unjustly swept aside by the tides of cultural history, and why TACT is thrilled to be presenting this foundational theatrical voice to you.