Today is the 80th birthday of legendary playwright J.E. Franklin. She is best known for her 1970 play “Black Girl” produced by the New Federal Theater. I am deeply inspired by her later work, mainly her 2014 play “Freedom Rider” directed by Eric Coleman and produced by the Dwyer Cultural Center. This is my review of her 2017 trilogy. I thought the second play of this trilogy called “The Invisible Negro” was the artistic root of the play performed before and after it. I encourage buying her collection of plays “To Break Every Yoke” that she self-published. I think J.E. Franklin’s plays must be read and performed because they ultimately challenge us, like all Leos being their best selves, to reach our ‘risen place.’ -RF.
As opposed to what was referred to in Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out” as “the sunken place,” J.e. Franklin in her short play “The Invisible Negro” shows a model of Black parenting that encourages Black parents to raise their children to claim what I call “the risen place.” This short play, “The Invisible Negro” was performed as the second of three plays on Sunday, February 5, 2017 at the Dwyer Cultural Center. The first play “One Drop” is set in 1966 Georgia. The second play “The Invisible Negro” is set in 1962 Alabama. The third play “What Mongrel-Baby?” is set in 1964 Houston. Although, these three plays take place in three different geographical locations in the twentieth century Jim Crow South, they are connected because they each show how African Americans are socialized to accept and respect whiteness as a social construct.
These short plays show this socialization within three types of interpersonal relationships: relationships with sibling, spouse, and the law. The short play “One Drop” presents a sibling relationship confronted with whiteness. The short play “The Invisible Negro” presents a spousal relationship confronted with whiteness. The short play “What Mongrel-Baby?” presents an interaction with Jim Crow law that is trying to enforce whiteness upon a midwife. The message in “The Invisible Negro” is the foundation for the other two plays. This play provides the foundation for challenging the assumptions of white supremacy and provides a model for Black parents interested in teaching their children not to accept the assumptions of white supremacy.
The play “The Invisible Negro” begins with a conversation between husband and wife Alma and Fred about their daughter Eva. Fred is upset about Eva approaching a storeowner Obie with the greeting “cousin Obie,” because Fred wants to protect Obie’s whiteness. Alma however is uninterested in protecting Obie’s whiteness and defends Eva’s behavior. She slowly reveals, to Fred’s dismay, that she encouraged Eva to approach Obie and call him “cousin Obie.” Alma said “I told her Obie is her cousin, and that’s all she know. How is she supposed to understand all this race shit when even grown folks dont understand it?” Alma resents Fred’s efforts to teach their daughter to deny her kinship with a man who is trying to pass for white. She disagrees with Fred that Eva should be reprimanded for identifying her cousin in public as “cousin Obie.” She does not want Eva to grow up supporting those that think that passing for white affords them economic and material success that they deserve. This justifies the Jim Crow order and requires separation and scorn from others who are unable to pass for white because of their skin color. Alma teaches Eva how to reject an individual’s effort to pass for white and to avoid “the sunken place” of the Jim Crow order that would allow Obie to ignore her in public and support a Jim Crow order that sanctions her segregated and inferior treatment.
“One Blood” is the story of two siblings who answer the question, of where their mother’s body should remain, very differently. Their mother’s final wishes was to be buried in a specific part of a cemetery. But after reading the fine print of a burial plot contract, the older sister Aline realized that it read “no negroes” in the same plot that their mother is currently buried in. Aline decides the best thing to do is to move their mother’s plot to the colored section. Aline’s sister Junie, however, wants her mother to remain in the original plot. Junie is ready to fight to not only keep her mother’s body where it is, but also to prevent it from being desecrated. Although it is clear their mother respected the Jim Crow order, both sisters have to wrestle with how far each of them will respect this order in their mother’s death. Aline chooses to respect it to keep the peace, however Junie, following the lesson of Alma in “The Invisible Negro,” chooses to defy it and dramatizes the illogic of white supremacy in her defiance.
“What Mongrel-Baby?” is a play that deals with how whiteness is socialized in an interaction with the law, represented by the character Sheriff Colson. Colson approaches the home of Grandma Rilla on her porch, where this entire short play is set, and threatens to arrest her for “illegal midwifing” and for breaking the Restrictive Covenant laws. He demands to know whether the baby Rilla just delivered is Negro and orders Rilla to take the baby from inside the house, put it on the porch in the sun to see if it is Negro. Rilla refuses. When Colson demands to see the mother, Rilla replies that she is nowhere around. Colson leaves and Rilla tells her granddaughter Margie that the only reason he came to her porch was to verify that the last baby she delivered of a white woman was with a colored man. Rilla tells Margie to tell the mother of the last child she delivered to not come over until “she hear from me.” Colson, like Obie and like the cemetery owner believes in Jim Crow order and its enforcement as part of a necessary and natural order. The fact that Rilla midwifed several white women including Colson’s relative Tillie Colson shows the central role that Black midwifery played in maintaining the Jim Crow order.
Rilla is like Alma in that both are mother figures who teach their, granddaughter and daughter, respectively, to see Jim Crow as a social construction and not an actual order that reflects biological reality. Or an actual order that reflects their own worth. Rilla teaches Margie to defy this order in a similar way that Alma teaches Eva to defy it. The destruction of Jim Crow depends on Black parents and grandparents like Alma and Rilla teaching their children to remain in “the risen place,” by subtly defying the Jim Crow order. -RF.