(above image by Durrock Knox at www.durrockknox.com)
On Wednesday August 2nd, 2017, the Alice Childress Society hosted a reading of a play written and produced in 1949 by Alice Childress (1916-1994) entitled “Florence.” This reading generated serious response from the audience and was one of the early readings of the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The play deals with a parent’s decision to support their child after learning about the social environment that her daughter is trying to change. Starletta DuPois read the role of Mama and Karen Robertson read the role of Mrs. Carter who is the woman who informs Mama about the social environment that Mama’s daughter is trying to change.
The play takes place “in the present” which would mean in a late 1940s train station in the segregated South. Mama is seated in the colored section and Mrs. Carter is seated in the white section. Charles Simmons Jr. who read the role of the station manager also indicates the social condition. Mama’s daughter is escorted to the train station by her daughter Marge who agrees with Mama’s initial plan to rescue Florence from the North and save her from her aspirations of being an actress. Marge thinks Florence returning to the South is best because Florence should raise her own child. The station manager indicates that Marge’s son picked peaches from his tree and lets the audience know that Marge has a handful already raising Florence’s child.
Through Mrs. Carter, Mama learns about popular culture including Mrs. Carter’s brother’s new book. Her brother is accomplished writer and through Mama’s verbal and nonverbal (performed memorably by Ms. DuPois) cues, we learn the disdain by Mama for popular books in the liberal mainstream that Alice is clearly critiquing through the exchange about Mrs. Carter’s brother’s book.
Her line to Mama as she describes her brother’s book is: “Tears roll down her cheeks as she says…almost! almost white…but I’m black! I’m a Negro! and then…she jumps and drowns herself!” Mama replies saying that “That aint so!…I know it ain’t!…My friend Hemsly works in the colored section of the shoe store…He never once wanted to kill himself!”
While Mrs. Carter and Mama wait for thr train to the North, Mama learns about the culture that her daughter is trying to change. Once she learns enough, she makes the fateful decision to support her daughter by not boarding the train. She asks the station manager to put a letter in the mail for her that says “KEEP TRYING.” This play is about a lot. Primarily, this story by Alice Childress is about a mother’s support for her daughter’s artistic development in the struggle for Black liberation.
It is very relevant to Georgia Jackson’s support of her sons Jonathan Jackson and George Jackson in their fight for Black liberation. I wrote about this in an article called “Socialized to Silence” about the ways that some Black parents socialize their children to remain silent about Jim Crow oppression. Alice Childress’s Mama character does not do this. In Toni Morrison’s “God Help The Child,” the mother character Sweetness describes her grandmother as one who could pass and socializes her children to accept her whiteness. In J.e. Franklin’s short play “The Invisible Negro” (2017) set in 1962 Alabama, the Black parent Alma teaches her daughter Eva not to be silent about her kinship with a relative who is trying to pass for white.
This is a difficult question for any Black parent because socializing one’s child NOT to accept the Jim Crow order could be setting them up for danger. What Alice Childress’s play shows is that with NECESSARY, HONEST COMMUNICATION between parent and child, along with a PARENT’S WILLINGNESS TO LISTEN to what their child is trying to say, children do not have to be socialized to be silent.
Special thanks to members of the Alice Childress Society for making this reading possible: Society President, Dr. Barbara Lewis, Professor Kathy Perkins, and Professor Dorothy Tsuruta. -RF.