American drama in the twentieth century brought about the emergence of many female playwrights. Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange are three of America’s distinguished African American female playwrights. They have contributed to the development of American Theatre and their works, with similar and different views, have inspired many female playwrights today. Before the twentieth century, there were not many opportunities for women in American theatre. Because men dominated American theatre, women, especially black women were hardly included. By the 1900 s, women began to burst on the scene.
They began to make their presence felt. The number of black female playwrights began to increase and important events such as the Harlem Renaissance served as an outlet for them to display their works and express their views and issues about black life. By the mid twentieth century, a new generation of black female playwrights emerged and brought change to American theatre. Black female playwrights began writing plays that involved more serious issues. In their plays, black female playwrights began to raise their voices and take a stand against racism, sexism, and stereotypes that were present in the earlier decades. Mance Williams, author of Black Theatre in the 60’s&70’s debates “plays during the 1950 s expressed a new form of protest, one that not only exhorted black people to stand up for their rights but warned whites that blacks would not settle for nothing less than their full share of the American Dream.” (p.
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107) Williams believe that black playwrights began to stand for what they believed in by writing plays that portrayed the strength and courage of black people and that they were not going to accept to portray anything less than that. Childress, Hansberry, and Shange are included as examples of strong black female playwrights taking a stand. These women are serious about their craft and their beliefs, and they were determined to have their voices heard. There are some similarities and differences in these three playwrights works.
A close look at their plays show that they share many of the same themes but their outlook is different. Childress, Hansberry, and Shange each have made contributions to the development of American theatre during the twentieth century. In a biography written by Lavinia Jennings entitled Alice Childress Alice describes herself as “one of the best known unknown persons.” (p. xi) Alice agrees that the contributions she has made to the development of American theatre have been kept unnoticed.
Childress was born on October 12, 1916 in Charleston, South Carolina. At the age of nine, she moved to Harlem to live with her grandmother after her parents separated. While growing up, Childress frequently visited the museums and libraries. She attended public school in New York, but after the deaths of her mother and grandmother, Childress dropped out of high school and gave birth to a baby girl in 1935.
After seeing a performance by the actress Laura Bowmen, Childress became interested in acting and in 1940, she joined the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. During her years with (ANT), Childress begin to see that the productions were mainly focused on issues that dealt with black men. She was destined to become a playwright because she wanted to construct more roles for women and change the usual stock females roles found in most plays. In 1949, Childress wrote her first play Florence, a one-act play in less than twenty-four hours. This play was a serious drama with a focus on black women.
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The play introduced issues such as white people’s presumptions of blacks and the urgency for blacks to refuse to play stereotyped roles. “Childress found herself increasingly aware that her gender and racial concerns were neither featured or reflected in the productions on which she worked.” (Jennings p. 17) Childress felt challenged to change male dominated issues because they were not the focus of black life. Childress continued to write more plays about women and take matters into her own hands.
In her plays such as Trouble in Mind (1955), and Wedding Band (1966), she portray black female protagonists as strong, assertive, evolving black women who demanded justice and equality in their lives. In her play Trouble in Mind, Childress continue to explore themes such as sexism, racism, and the refusing of stereotypes. Author of Their Place on the Stage, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory notes “Childress insists in this drama that blacks must maintain their integrity and identity in the theater, refusing to accept roles that characterize them as exotic or half human creatures, regardless of monetary losses.” (p. 31) Childress argues that blacks must take a stand in order to hold on to their dignity in the theater no matter how much money is lost in the process. Childress play Wedding Band became the first play by her to be nationally televised in 1974. This play deals with an interracial relationship that is put to an end by prejudices and opinions of whites and blacks.
Another play by Childress entitled Mojo: A Black Love Story (1970) is a drama that deals with the lives of a poor black couple in love each other but eventually separate and spends the rest of their lives unhappy due to economical and emotional burdens. What Childress try to convey in these two plays is that black people can create obstacles that would prevent themselves from developing any self-confidence, and dignity more than any other race can. Childress believes that “true liberation starts from within with true self-knowledge, self-appreciation, and self-celebration and that trust, support, and respect between black men and women can occur only with the equal rising of both.” (Brown- Guillory p. 81) In order to successfully rise together as black people, Childress feel that we must search within ourselves respect, trust, and loyalty for each other so that we can better our lives and the lives of generations to come. Childress took a break from playwright ing and took a trip to Russia where she studied Soviet life and culture. Childress not only wrote plays but she went on to write novel and books.
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Her plays have been glorified for their theatrical qualities and realism.