- The Black Arts Movement (1965–1976)An Interview with Playwright J.e. Franklin
Let’s go back in time. You were telling me a really interesting story earlier about your first experience watching a professional production. Could you talk about that a little bit?
It was at Judson Poets’ Theatre down in the Village. I was living in the Judson Poets’ House, which was around the corner and upstairs from the theater. Reverend Howard Moody was the minister at the time and I had just come to New York from the South. I went to see a production of a play by Rosalyn Drexler. The name of the play was Home Movies . Barbara Ann Teer and James Anderson were in the play. They were the first black actors that I had ever seen on the professional stage. Of course, I’d seen Black actors in the films. I’d seen Lena Horne, Cab Calloway. I’d seen all those black performers, but not on the live stage.
It was the first time that I started getting a passion, a spark that made me want to write for the stage. I remember … just seeing Barbara, James Anderson, and George Bartenieff on the stage, being so happy doing what they were doing. What they were doing made me want to write something for people to be on the stage and be that happy, doing what they were doing. That’s really what lured me into wanting to be a playwright. When I went down to Mississippi in 1964 to work with the Freedom Democratic Party, which was really the beginnings of the party, [I] started working in voter registration at the Freedom School in Harmony, Mississippi, and wrote my first play, A First Step to Freedom. It was not a full-length play, by the way. Maybe I thought it was a full length play because I had never written one. But, thinking back on how the play might have been, it might not have even been a one-act play, but it was a play that was drawn from the students’ words and their understanding of what was going on in their lives.
I was very good at listening to dialogue and then recording what the children had said. And based upon the stories that they had told about their conflict in the community: white riders, night riders coming in and shooting them up, and their conflicts that their parents had with the white people in the community. I wrote a play based upon the words and the language and the images that they had used and I did it because the children had no books and the children could not read. The children were in their seventh, eighth, and ninth grade, still struggling to read the Fun with Dick and Jane  book—students who were just totally turned off, students who had been taken out of school and sent to [End Page 1139] pick some white man’s cotton, who were marked “present” and just passed on from one grade to the next.
I was heartbroken by what I saw and I didn’t know how to fix it. We didn’t have any books. We were chased out of every place we tried to set up a school in and so we ended up just trying to conduct classes under the trees. Someone had sent an old rickety typewriter and a mimeo machine. At that time you had to ink a drum and it was called a mimeograph machine. You had to ink the drum and then you had to hook the paper on the drum and you had to crank it up with your hand and print the plays up. So I wrote this play, A First Step to Freedom, on legal sized paper and read the play out loud to the children whose words I had used to write the play. Based upon their memory of what they had said, they were able to match up the lines on the paper, in the script, with what they had said and they learned how to read that way. And...