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Kathleen Collins

(1941—1988)


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(1941–1988), playwright, scriptwriter, filmmaker, director, novelist, short story writer, and educator.

Born Kathleen Conwell in Jersey City, she was the daughter of Frank and Loretta Conwell. Her father, who had worked as a mortician, became the principal of a high school now named after him and the first black New Jersey state legislator. In 1963, after receiving her BA in philosophy and religion from Skidmore College, Collins worked on black southern voter registration for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1966 she earned an MA in French literature and cinema through the Middle-bury program at Paris's Sorbonne. Joining the editorial and production staff at a New York City Public Broadcasting Service station, Collins worked as a film editor and began writing stories. In 1974, soon after ending her marriage to Douglas Collins, she became a professor of film history and screenwriting at the City College of New York. Adapting Henry H. Roth's fiction for the screen in The Cruz Brothers and Mrs. Malloy (1980), Collins became the first African American woman to write, direct, and produce a full-length feature film. Her film won first prize at the Sinking Creek Film Festival.

Collins's second feature, Losing Ground (1982), directed, coproduced, and based on an original screenplay by her, won Portugal's Figueroa de Foz Film Festival and garnered international acclaim. (Her screenplay, which differs in some significant ways from the film, is included in Screenplays of the African American Experience, 1991, edited by Phyllis Rauch Klotman.) A philosophical comedy that probes painful and deadly serious experiences, Losing Ground begins with a discussion of existentialism's roots in the futile attempt to explain away the chaos of war and ends with a symbolic act of violence that provides a release from order. It centers on a philosophy professor's efforts to escape the confinements of academic living, marriage to an abstract painter who denies her respect and private space, and her own cold and orderly mind by moving from the analytical study of ecstasy to the experience itself.

While making films, Collins produced equally remarkable drama. In the Midnight Hour (1981) portrayed a black middle-class family at the outset of the civil rights movement. The Brothers (1982) was named one of the twelve outstanding plays of the season by the Theatre Communications Group and published in Margaret B. Wilkerson's Nine Plays by Black Women (1986). It delineates the impact of racism and sexism on a black middle-class family from 1948 to 1968 as articulated by six intelligent, witty, and strikingly different women. The brothers themselves, though never seen, are vibrant presences through the women's remarks and mimicry.

In 1983 Collins reencountered Alfred Prettyman whom she had known twenty years earlier and four years later they were married. One week after their marriage, she learned that she had cancer. At the time of her death, she had completed a new screenplay, Conversations with Julie, her sixth stage play, Waiting for Jane, and a final draft of her novel, Lollie: A Suburban Tale. As more of her work appears, her already fine reputation as filmmaker and playwright will surely rise and be further enhanced by a new reputation in fiction.

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Subjects: Literature.


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