Lessons from a Life Lived: Playwright J.E. Franklin offers advice to a J-Term Class

By Ryan Kirby

Pia Contreras

The playwright J.E. Franklin is just as much a mentor as she is an acclaimed writer who brings the Black experience to the stage. Best known for her landmark play “Black Girl,” Franklin joined the J-term class “African American Plays from Stage to Screen” this winter to discuss her career and provide advice for the next generation of creative minds.

Visiting postdoctoral fellow Nathaniel Nesmith, who taught the class, assigned Franklin’s play in the course and then arranged for the class to speak with the playwright about her process and experiences. Franklin made time for the class amid her busy schedule, and was in and out of a doctor’s office, her car and her home as she spoke to students. The playwright had a mission to share her wisdom, and the students were all ears.

Franklin has an extensive resume. She has taught at the City University of New York, Skidmore College, Brown University and the Harlem School of the Arts. She is most known, however, as a playwright whose work highlights the Black experience. “Black Girl,” her most famous play which was adapted into a feature film of the same name in 1972, focuses on the difficulties of achieving a higher education and breaking out of societal molds as a Black woman. 

In Nesmith’s class, Franklin shared stories about her early life in the theater business and the sexism that dominates the industry. As a budding playwright, Franklin was forced to write under the pen name “J.E.,” a tactic used by her agent to increase the likelihood of getting picked up by a major theater or theatrical publishing company — J.E. was deemed more “masculine,” and her agents believed that writing as a woman would diminish her chances of finding success. Franklin said that despite her protests, she wrote under this guise for years until it finally became impossible to ignore; instead of continuing to hide her identity, she made it known that her status as a Black woman was the greatest resource for her creative genius. 

Franklin established her career in the height of the Civil Rights movement. She recounted immense struggles and difficulties of that experience, and ended with a simple, elegant abstract of her mantra: “Get in touch with the pain inside you. Be patient.” 

Franklin described her playwriting by saying that she always intends to create something somebody can use to make themselves better. This is the core of her artistry: educating the audience. She affirmed the unique power of theatre to positively affect communities and noted that, as she becomes older, she finds new characters and situations forming out of her lived experiences. When portraying these stories on stage, Franklin crafts a vision of realism that allows an audience to watch the situations as if they were occurring in real life. In her work, Franklin strives toward realism that inspires action from her audience whether it be a quote that lingers, a character that resonates or a scene that inspires change in a community. No matter the story, Franklin imbues her plays with seeds of knowledge that can be taken and sewn into the fabric of their personal lives. 

 

The road to success is long, but pioneers like Franklin exist as proof that, with tenacity and patience, artists will find the right audience and create change. Franklin’s visit left the class’s group of artists, writers and creative minds with a newfound sense of purpose. Her creative process encouraged us to look at the good that can rise out of terror, and to work to illuminate that journey. Although Franklin gifted us a number of quotable moments, one continues to ring long after her visit: “Youth is a cauldron… draw on that, if you survive it.”