The black actress, novelist, and playwright Alice Childress is born in Charleston, South Carolina, on this day in 1912. Childress moved to Harlem when she was five and was raised by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write. At weekly church events, young Childress heard moving stories of personal and family struggles, which inspired her with a love of storytelling and served as fodder for stories about the plight of urban blacks.
Childress became passionately interested in theater and attended the American Negro Theater School of Drama and Stagecraft. In 1944, she made her debut in Anna Lucasta, which became the longest running all-black play on Broadway. She wrote, directed, and starred in her first play in 1949, and in 1950, encouraged by actor and activist Paul Robeson, she founded her own theater. She wrote more than a dozen plays, including Trouble in Mind. The play was scheduled to move to Broadway in 1957, but Childress objected to changes requested in the script and canceled the production. Her 1966 play, Wedding Band, was produced again in 1972 by Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival.
Childress also wrote adult and children’s novels. Like her plays, they dealt with the pressures on urban blacks. Her young-adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich (1973) recounts the rehabilitation of a 13-year-old heroin addict. The book became a bestseller and a movie in 1977. Her 1979 novel, A Short Walk, was nominated for a Pulitzer. Childress also collaborated with her husband, composer Nathan Woodard, on musical plays. She died in 1994 at age 81.