Born Jennie Elizabeth Franklin in Houston, the playwright J.e. Franklin grew up in a family of 13 children. After receiving her B.A. from the University of Texas, Franklin made her way to New York and began to make work for the theatre during the Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s. Her first major stage work, Mau Mau Room, was directed by Shauneille Perry and produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1969. Her most well-known play, Black Girl, aired on public television that year and was subsequently presented at Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre (1971), also helmed by Perry, and the production earned Franklin a Drama Desk Award for most promising playwright.
In 1972 Black Girl became a feature film, with a screen adaptation by Franklin, featuring a star-studded cast and direction by Ossie Davis. Over the next four decades, Franklin received many awards for playwriting, among them a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1979), a Rockefeller Fellowship (1980), and the John F. Kennedy New American Play Award. She has taught at a number of academic institutions, including Lehman College, the University of Iowa, and Touro College. In addition to Black Girl, many of her plays have been produced at theatres around the country: A First Step to Freedom (1964), The In-Crowd (1964), Four Women (1973), MacPilate (1974), The Prodigal Sister (1974), Miss Honey’s Young’uns (1984), The Onliest-One Who Can’t Go Nowhere (1992), Christchild (1992), Mother, Dear Mother, I Still Think of Thee (2015), That’s Why They Calls Us Colored: Bless They Hearts (2017).
I had an opportunity some months ago to attend an open mic night at New Amsterdam Musical Association in Harlem, at which Franklin read one of her short stories. A few days after her NAMA reading, we sat down to discuss her career.
NATHANIEL G. NESMITH: When your play Black Girl was an Off-Broadway hit in 1971, before it was made into a feature movie, were you at all prepared for the success it brought?
J.E. FRANKLIN: I’m not sure what you mean by prepared. No bomb went off in my life. I just went with the flow and rolled with the punches. That’s how I took it. When the movie came out, I was a full-time lecturer at Lehman College. I was involved with my students’ needs. I went out to Hollywood, did the movie, and came back to my full-time job. Maybe that’s what cushioned me from whatever other people might have experienced from such a time as that. To be honest, I didn’t think that much about it. I did it, and that was that.
In 1971, Clive Barnes, writing in The New York Times, stated that Black Girl had “an air of honesty about it.” What did it mean to you to have a major critic in a major newspaper say that about your play?
The same thing it meant to other playwrights. It was an honor to have someone of his stature come and see the play and think it was worth writing about.
What do you see as the major themes in your plays, and how do you think they have influenced current playwrights?
A few current playwrights are attending my plays, and I work with a number of themes. One of my strongest themes is the coming of age. In many of my 10-minute plays, I explore the theme of mercy; the theme of race; the theme of freedom. As I become interested in an issue or theme, I write about it.
When you write your plays, do you envision the audience?
No, the audience is not present when I’m writing. It’s enough to try to ground myself in my characters, to access their feelings and their pain. I have to be present in the visceral world of the characters. Being centered in that way is what allows me to access the character dynamics in the development of the work.
How do you feel that theatre has changed since you started writing plays back in the mid-1960s?
I’m seeing the influence of television. I see writers using stock characters. And their comic lines sound hollow, the way they do on television. The advice I always give my playwriting students, though they don’t heed it, is to turn the television off!
You were establishing your career during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. How did the politics of that time influence your political activities as well as your playwriting?
My political activity jump-started my playwriting career. I was in Mississippi when I wrote A First Step to Freedom. I wrote it as a reading tool for children who couldn’t read. Seeing them struggle is what sparked my interest in education. When I returned to New York, I joined the education faculty at Herbert H. Lehman College/CUNY. From that experience I invented a reading tool that combines the art of theatre and the art of education.
You have worked with or had your plays produced in New York City by two important theatre figures, Douglass Turner Ward of the Negro Ensemble Company and Woodie King Jr. of New Federal Theatre. What were your experiences like working with them?
They were good experiences. Doug picked Mau Mau Room for NEC, and that work jump-started the careers of several actors. Richard Roundtree created the role of Jimmy in Mau Mau Room and went on to become Shaft. NEC is where I met Shauneille Perry, who directed Mau Mau Room and who later directed Black Girl and Prodigal Sister at the New Federal Theatre. Woodie produced Black Girl, Prodigal Sister, and later, Christchild. Those were the three major plays he did of mine. NEC was the first professional theatre to produce one of my 10-minute plays.
Among the playwrights who were important to you when you started out, have they helped or stayed with you during your career?
The first playwright I met was Rosalyn Drexler. The Judson Poet’s Theatre did her play Home Movies. Jimmy Anderson and Barbara Ann Teer, who were in the play, were the first Black professional actors I had seen onstage. It was they who impacted my early career as a playwright. Then I met Amiri Baraka, who was LeRoi Jones back then. Charles Gordone directed a reading of Mau Mau Room. Both Amiri and Chuck were at Judson.
Alice Childress, whom I met in Washington at Howard University, had a big influence on me. She was the first Black woman playwright I met. We had a long conversation on our train ride back to New York. Then there was George Bass, who invited me up to Brown University to work with him in the African American Studies department on his project Finding a People’s Ideology. Working with George was an unforgettable experience!
In addition to Brown University you taught at Skidmore. What was the experience like for you at Skidmore?
Alan Brody invited me up to Skidmore as resident director to direct a play of mine with a group of Black students. That was a very good experience! I’m still in touch with one of the actors, who lives in Harlem now, and is an accountant.
Adrienne Kennedy had her early success in the 1960s. Ntozake Shange had her early success in the 1970s. You had your success in between the two. You are all different playwrights in style, politics, and also aesthetics. Did you have any interaction with either of them, and how are you the same and how are you different?
I met both Adrienne and Ntozake. Adrienne was visiting a friend and neighbor here in Harlem. I also ran into her in my work with George Bass, up at Brown. Of course, we’re all Black women! That we surely have in common! But we differ in that I’ve drawn more deeply on the folk voice of the community which shaped my vision.
In 1981, Mel Gussow wrote, “We have not yet felt the full impact of black women playwrights on the American theatre, but among the dramatists of promise are Aishah Rahman, Elaine Jackson, J.e. Franklin, and Micki Grant.”
I don’t remember having read that. It was so long ago. I agree with what Gussow said. In 1981, we were promising playwrights. Now it’s 2019. It’s time for our full impact to be felt!
What do you think was or is your greatest challenge or main obstacle as a Black woman playwright?
The main challenge, which is over now, was trying to balance motherhood with a career in the theatre—a career in anything—trying to balance everything. The support system wasn’t there. I had to do it all. But I think I got stronger for it.
What has been the most challenging thing about maintaining your career as a playwright?
Finding actors who can connect with the voices of the characters. Most of my plays draw upon the Southern experience. Most actors here in New York have never even flown over the South. They’re foreign to the experience. Sometimes they deliver the lines in a way that’s grating on the senses. That’s why I don’t go to rehearsals.
You are now writing short stories. Is fiction writing replacing your playwriting?
Fiction and playwriting are not necessarily un-akin. Doesn’t a play have to have a storyline? In fact my 10-minute plays compress the short-short story into play form. So how is a story that’s seamlessly fused with a play separate from the play? What some people call a short story, other people call a performance piece, a one-character play, a solo piece or a monologue. Woodie presented the work you saw and said it was a one-character play, performed with one actress. So one is not replacing the other.
When you look back over the scope of your career, what would you like to change?
I would be less involved in production but definitely more involved in selecting a director! Some of my work suffered because I didn’t insist on a director who would have done a better job than the one selected. Some directors are just not right for certain plays.
Do you think you should have wider recognition?
People have said so. Yes. Why not? For the past 20 years, my works have been performed in colleges and universities, churches, community centers, hospitals, libraries, prisons, shelters, schools, senior citizen centers, parks and recreation centers. And then there’s ProQuest and Alexander Street Press, which leases my work all over the world. It’s out there!
Have your hopes and dreams been realized in theatre?
If that were so, I would not be writing any more. I am still writing, and my work is still being done. I have not put a period to anything yet.
What do you think your legacy will be?
I don’t know. I’m still writing. Someone thought my 10-minute plays would be my signature work. And now I’m doing the one-character works, or performance pieces. Ten years from now somebody might ask me if that will be my legacy. Or I might be asked about my plays on race. I don’t know what the full body will look like. Someone else will have to come up with the verdict on that.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith, an independent theatre scholar, is currently working on a book about theatre during the Civil Rights Movement.