Alice Childress at the University of Michigan

As difficult as it is for any play to go from page to stage, Black playwrights have had additional obstacles to overcome in that quest. Their work may not be seen as commercial enough to warrant the effort or the subject matter of their plays may be defined as too difficult to handle for a traditional theatergoing audience (TRANSLATION: white patrons). In a world where state legislatures draft bills to ban books and the teaching of American history accurately, warts and all, it’s hard to believe a Black writer who wishes to be represent the lives and thoughts of Black people has any chance at a career. So it stands to reason that during Women’s History Month we should marvel at the accomplishments of playwright Alice Childress.

Ms. Childress is the only African American woman to have written, produced, and published plays over four consecutive decades. She was more prolific than better known writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, her contemporary Lorraine Hansberry, or Ntozake Shange. In spite of that significant career achievements her path to success was never assured or easy. 

Born in Charleston, S.C. on October 12, 1916, Alice survived the influenza pandemic that had gripped much of the world at that time. At the age of nine she moved to Harlem, NY with her grandmother, Eliza Campbell White, after her parents separated. Though her grandmother had no formal education, having been born during slavery, she did encourage Alice to pursue her love of reading and develop her writing skills. Childress dropped out of high school when her grandmother died, taking odd jobs to support herself. In 1939, she began studying theater with the American Negro Theatre (ANT), performing there and having her first one-act play – “Florence” – produced by the company. With ANT, she developed her passion to interpret ‘ordinary’ people’ because, as she said, “they are not ordinary.” This desire brought her to Michigan for a period of time.

By 1965, it had been ten years since Childress had an opening night. The Off-Broadway premiere of “Trouble in Mind,” her first full-length play, was a dramatic comedy that examined the second-class status of Black performers in the American Theatre. The show was a critical hit generating interest from Broadway producers. Soon afterward, a proposed transfer of the play to Broadway was being discussed. However, those producers wanted revisions to the script before moving forward. These revisions would have significantly altered the play’s ending. When Childress refused to make the changes the Broadway run was cancelled.

Ms. Childress sent her second full-length play, “Wedding Band,” to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, submitting it for production by their Professional Theatre Program (PTP).

The University had just started the PTP four years earlier. Led by Robert C. Schnitzer, who served as Executive Director, and Marcella Cisney, who was the Artistic Director, the married couple brought a number of professional touring companies to the campus including the American Conservatory Theatre, Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and the Phoenix Theatre. Through the group’s New Plays Series, PTP mounted original works including “An Evening’s Frost” by Donald Hall, “Amazing Grace” by Studs Terkel, “The Castle” by Ivan Klima, and “The Conjuror” by Evan Hunter.

Ms. Childress thought “Wedding Band” might be perfect for the New Plays Project. She had completed it in 1962 but couldn’t find a New York theatre to stage it. The play received a staged reading by New Dramatists with a Broadway production announced for October of 1964 starring Diane Sands, but that production never materialized. Some believed it was due to the play’s stark realism. “Wedding Band” reflects many of the themes characteristic of Childress’ writing; the empowerment of Black women, interracial politics, and working-class life.

“Wedding Band,” is set in Childress’ home town of Charleston, S.C., during the summer of 1918. The play is the love story of Julie, a Black seamstress, and Herman, a white baker. The play begin during the 10th anniversary of their relationship. They frequently talk about marriage but never get any closer to the alter. By the play’s end Julia must confront the inherent prejudices and ignorance hidden in American culture.

Marcella Cisney fell in love with the script. A production was scheduled for December of 1966 with Ms. Cisney directing. Ms. Childress began approaching professional actors she knew in New York to fill out the 12-member cast. She was able to secure stage and screen actress Ruby Dee as Julia. Dee was a close friend going back to their days with the ANT. 

“Wedding Band” opened at the Lydia Mendelsohn Theatre on December 7th playing seven performances through December 11th. The cast included John Harkins as Herman, Moses Gunn, Abbey Lincoln, Clarice Taylor, Minnie Gentry, and Katherine Squire.

A review in the Ann Arbor News said: “Alice Childress’ play, alternating between the warmly tender and chillingly shocking, balances the beautiful against the ugly, reality against the dream, the desirable against the inevitable.” Later on in the article the reviewer said the play “to its end is drama of magnitude.”

The successful world premiere in Ann Arbor generated interest for a subsequent production in Chicago. However, a New York premiere wouldn’t occur until the New York Shakespeare Festival presented it in 1972. The play was later filmed and shown on ABC in 1974, but eight of the network’s affiliates declined to carry the show and four more delayed their broadcast because of its theme and subject matter.

On Sunday, August 14, 1994, Alice Childress died of cancer at Astoria General Hospital in Queens. She was 77. In the fifty years since the New York Shakespeare Festival production, “Wedding Band” has become her most produced plays. In spite of the circuitous route it took to the stage its premiere at the University of Michigan was the catalyst for all of its success.