J. E. Franklin

(b. 1937)

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Ossie Davis (1917—2005)

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(b. 1937), writer, playwright, and educator.

Jennie Elizabeth Franklin was born in Houston, Texas; she began writing her impressions as a child and received a BA from the University of Texas. She was a primary school teacher in the Freedom School in Carthage, Mississippi (1964); served as a youth director at the Neighborhood House in Buffalo, New York (1964–1965); worked as an analyst in the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity in New York City (1967–1968); and was a lecturer in education at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York (1969–1975).

In 1964, while working with CORE in Mississippi, she engaged in an effort designed to interest students in reading. Her techniques led to her playwrighting career and her first full-length play, A First Step to Freedom (1964), which was performed in Harmony, Mississippi, at Sharon Waite Community Center. Other produced plays include Prodigal Daughter, a street theater project performed at Lincoln Center and on a Bronx street corner; The In-Crowd (1965), performed at the Montreal Expo in 1967; Mau Mau Room, performed by the Negro Ensemble Company Workshop; Two Flowers, produced at the New Feminist Theatre; and The Prodigal Sister, produced at Theatre de Lys (1976). The last was a musical, with book and lyrics by Franklin and music by Micki Grant, about an unwed mother-to-be who leaves home to escape parental displeasure; this was her second major New York production.

However, it was the play Black Girl (1971) that earned her acclaim and a following; it later became a movie with Ossie Davis as director and Franklin as screenwriter. Initially, the play was produced by Woodie King, Jr., at the New Federal Theatre and later moved to the Theatre de Lys. It ran for an entire season, and each performance opened to a full and enthusiastic house. It is the story of Billie Jean, the baby of the family, who is a high school dropout with talent and the desire to become a ballet dancer, and of her family's attempt to thwart her advancement. It is a deceptively simple play that addresses intraracial oppression, family dynamics, choices, and becoming.

In addition to her produced plays, Franklin has many unpublished and unproduced works. She has contributed articles to periodicals and written a book entitled Black Girl, from Genesis to Revelations (1977), which details the writing of the play, her confrontation with the theater world, and the pains and promises of converting the play into a television production and later a film.

Franklin's talent has been rewarded with the Media Women Award (1971); the New York Drama Desk Most Promising Playwright Award (1971); the Institute for the Arts and Humanities Dramatic Award from Howard University (1974); the Better Boys Foundation Playwrighting Award (1978); the Ajabei Children's Theater Annual Award (1978); the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (1979); and the Rockefeller Grant (1980). In her works, she is realistic, presents multifaceted African American life from a female perspective, and demonstrates her belief that the theater should educate, be socially aware, and present feelings and options to the viewers.


Subjects: Literature.

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