Milner, Ron(ald) 1938–
Ron(ald) Milner 1938–
Playwright, essayist, director
Although playwrights have often created critical successes for the stage, few of these writers have achieved both a critical success on stage and financial security as a reward for hard work. Ronald Milner has proven an exception to the usual destitute playwright image with plays that have been so successful that he has been able to enjoy the financial rewards of writing that most often go only to best-selling novelists. This success was even more surprising for a black dramatist, most of whom have been forced to go into university teaching to support their families. Milner was able to combine his talent for writing with the stories of his childhood, and in doing so, he created plays and musicals in which audiences recognized the authentic telling of their own stories.
Milner was born on May 29, 1938, in what was formally Women’s Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. Milner’s father worked at a number of low-paying laboring jobs to support his family, and his mother worked as well, earning what she could as a waitress. Milner grew up on Hastings Street, the main street of black Detroit; an area that offered many possibilities to a young black male, some honest and some ripe with ways to make easy money. There were pimps and their prostitutes and Muslims and Southern Baptists, all living together on the same street. Among Milner’s neighbors was a young Aretha Franklin, who sang at her father’s church. These many elements of diversity in Milner’s childhood neighborhood offered the kind of source material that any good writer might develop into a life’s work.
As a child, Milner made good use of the neighborhood library, and it did not take him long to realize that the literature he was reading contained the same stories that he was seeing played out his own world on Hastings Street. It was this early reading that would eventually help lead Milner to a career as a writer. When Milner was a child, he received copies of Mark Twain’s two novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Milner commented to Dennis Watlington of the New York Times that he was “drawn to the fact that these guys spoke like people I knew.” The locations and names were different, but the stories were the same. The importance of these books in Milner’s life cannot be underestimated. He told Watlington that “from the time I read those books I knew I could write.” Milner realized that he should write the stories that he had witnessed. When Milner graduated from Detroit’s Northeastern High School, where he had played basketball, he began writing more seriously. Even while he was writing, though, Milner was still focusing on his education. He attended both Highland Park Junior College and the Detroit Institute of Technology briefly, but never completed a course of study at either facility.
In 1962 Milner received a John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellow grant for work on a novel, The Life of the Brothers Brown, which was never completed. Instead of writing novels, Milner found that his talents were best expressed in another format, playwriting. One of Milner’s first writing efforts in this genre was a 1963
At a Glance…
Born on May 29, 1938 in Detroit, Ml; four children.
Career: Playwright, 1966-; writer, 1970-72; director, 2003-.
Awards: John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellow, 1962; Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, 1965.
short children’s play, The Greatest Gift, which was performed in Detroit public schools for several years. But this children’s play did not fulfill Milner’s talents as a playwright. Even though he had once felt inspired by Twain, ultimately it was the encouragement of his high school friend, Woodie King Jr., that led Milner to write his first major play. Who’s Got His Own was first produced at the Unstable Coffeehouse in Detroit in 1965. In that same year, Milner received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow Award to bring Who’s Got His Own to New York. A year later, Milner’s play would become the first drama by a black writer to be staged at the American Place Theatre, a non-profit theater located in Manhattan.
Who’s Got His Own was a psychologically focused family drama in which the principal characters tried to grapple with the damage that they suffered from their father, who in the play’s opening scene was recently deceased. Milner’s play sought to define the mechanics of black manhood through the painful memories of a son. This thoughtful family drama proved to be a successful first effort for the young playwright. Who’s Got His Own toured several New York colleges before it returned to New York City in 1967 to open at the New Lafayette Theatre.
Milner’s next play, The Warning —A Theme for Linda was one play that was presented as a part of A Black Quartet, a set of four short plays by four different writers, which would also later be published as a book. These plays were produced by Woodie King Jr. and premiered in 1969, opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Chelsea Street Theatre Center. Milner used a grandmother, mother, and seventeen-year-old girl as his principal characters to show the way women responded to family discord. Naturally enough, black women embraced this play, seeing in Milner a playwright who could write about women’s experiences. With only his second successful play, Milner had proved his appeal to a varied audience.
Milner’s third play, The Monster, was staged in 1969 at the Louis Theatre in Chicago. The focus of the play was on political leadership. Another new departure for Milner was the use of absurdist theater to explore black college life. In only his first half dozen years as a playwright, Milner had already enjoyed a sizable success. Two of his plays had been staged in New York City and there had been several successful performances on college campuses. As a way to enhance his work as a playwright, Milner also began to write critical essays on what he saw as the role of black theater. Early in the 1970s, he produced two important essays. “Black Magic, Black Art” was published in Five Black Writers, a collection of essays on dramatists Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Le Roi Jones. A second essay, “Black Theatre Go Home,” was published in 1972 in The Black Aesthetic, a book that examined African-American art. Both essays urged black artists to seek out black audiences for their work.
Milner next began editing Black Drama Anthology with Woodie King Jr., a book that would be published in 1972. But even while working on this project, Milner was still writing plays. His next work, What the Wine-Sellers Buy, opened in May of 1973 at The New Federal Theatre in New York City. This theater specialized in minority drama and would become a welcoming forum for the staging of several of Milner’s plays. In What the Wine-Sellers Buy, Milner created complex characters who were not defined by stereotypical, one-dimensional behavior. This was especially true of the villain, Rico, whose characterization made the play a commercial success. In this play Milner took a close look at the films and status symbols that were influencing black youth. The resulting play could be interpreted as a condemnation of society’s focus on profit at all cost.
The first production of What the Wine-Sellers Buy was very successful, and in October of 1973, a new production of Milner’s play opened in Los Angeles. The following year, theatrical producer Joseph Papp, backed a production of What the Wine-Sellers Buy, which would eventually open at the Lincoln Center in February of 1974. Milner had the distinction of being the first black playwright to have a play staged in this theater. What the Wine-Sellers Buy played at Lincoln Center for only a month, but it was so successful that it made more money than any of Papp’s other productions that season. Papp also used an abridged version of What the Wine-Sellers Buy for his New York City Park’s theatrical production during the summer of 1974. This same shorter version also enjoyed a very successful tour of major cities around the country. As a result of this success, What the Wine-Sellers Buy turned Milner from a critically successful playwright into a financially successful playwright and one of the few millionaire playwrights to ever emerge.
Because of the success of What the Wine-Sellers Buy, Milner was able to return to Detroit to open the kind of community theater that he had long been advocating. He also began to emphasize even more strongly the need for drama to appeal to a black audience, especially a teenage audience. Milner founded and became the director of The Spirit of Shango Theater Company, in Detroit. While at this theater, Milner staged his production of M(ego) and the Green Ball of Freedom, which used music and dance as part of the performance. This 1971 musical play heralded a trend in Milner’s work, the use of lyrics, music, and dance to explore the same issues that his dramatic plays had earlier embraced. The next project for Milner, and as a way to honor a talent that had inspired and encouraged his own writing, Milner opened the Langston Hughes Theatre in October of 1975. The theater was located in a renovated movie theater on Detroit’s predominately black west side, and it helped to fulfill Milner’s goal of making theater more accessible to black audiences, while offering encouragement and a forum for less well-known black artists.
Milner supported local theater with Season’s Reasons, an a cappella opera, which would become the first of Milner’s plays to be produced at the Langston Hughes Theatre. Milner used this musical to show the transformation of the black community from the early 1960s to the 1970s. Four years later, Milner followed with another musical, Jazz-Set, which opened in 1980 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. In this production, Milner used jazz as the common thread to tell the personal stories of several members of a jazz sextet. For this musical, Milner again collaborated with Woodie King Jr. Then in July of 1982, Jazz-Set opened in The New Federal Theatre in New York. It was Milner’s first production in New York in several years.
Milner’s next work, Checkmates, first opened in Detroit as a regional theater production, but it quickly moved to Los Angeles in July of 1987, opening at the Westwood Playhouse. In this drama, Milner told two stories. The first story focused on an older couple, who have survived many troubles, but who have made their marriage succeed for more than four decades. The second story focused on a younger couple, whose focus was more on work and personal success and less on making their marriage work. Milner’s argument was that the younger couple should look to the older couple to find a model of successful marital happiness. In this sense, the theme was not very different from his other plays, since he was arguing in this work that the young need to look to their elders for lessons on how to succeed in life. The familiar argument that youth place too much effort on acquiring success and money, while willing to sacrifice the things that matter most, was also very much in evidence.
Checkmates met with mixed reviews, largely because Milner’s play presented two separate stories that were juxtaposed against the other but not interwoven into one story. In a 1988 interview, Milner told The Washington Post’s Joe Brown, that the play began with his own life experiences but quickly came to mean more. According to Milner, “you start seeing affirmations of your experience all around you, on talk shows, things your friends tell you. When it’s just your own problem, you think ’Why should someone drive across town and pay for a babysitter to sit through this?’ But then you see that it’s a universal thing.” Milner reasoned that his own life experiences mirrored those of many others, and he sees this as a way to appeal to the audience, in a shared identity between writer and listener.
In 1996, another Milner play, Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms, had its premiere at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago. In this play, Milner examined some of the issues that working class blacks face as they struggle to achieve success. This play also pointed to the temptations that young black youth face when the need for money strains family morality. The play opened to mixed reviews, with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Hedy Weiss labeling Milner’s play as “sometimes clumsy but worthy.” While Weiss did praise many of the elements of Milner’s work, she also thought that his argument about drugs and easy money “might have been drawn with considerably more subtlety.”
Weiss’ views would be disputed two years later, in 1998, when Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms opened at the Henry Street Settlement Harry De Jur Playhouse in New York City. In a review of this production for The New York Times, Anita Gates called Milner’s, Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms, an “intelligent, incisive and all too believable” play, with some “thoughtful soliloquies,” some of which she called “outstanding.” A month later, Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms moved to the Robeson Theatre in Buffalo, New York. Terry Doran, writing for The Buffalo News, noted a few small flaws, “small play-wrighting awkwardness, spots where actors get emotional crunches they can’t quite handle,” but Doran also said that audiences should forget those small flaws. Instead, audiences should focus on the best parts of the play; “a welcome ensemble performance of a good, decent family under threat of disintegration,” a play that was “one degree separated from newspaper headlines.” As it had for several of Milner’s earlier plays, the New Federal Theatre also staged Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms during their 2002-2003 season. At the play’s May 2002 revival, according to Alexis So-loski of the Village Voice, there were some nice elements of the play to consider. In particular, “Milner’s depiction of the family profiting from the dope is nicely handled and original.” But this originality was offset, said Soloski by “platitudes,” “showboating,” and the “indulgent freestyling” in which the actors indulged.
Clearly, as was the case with many of Milner’s works, the critics were often divided, but the public’s enthusiasm has kept his plays in the theaters. For instance, Checkmates, has witnessed several revivals. In 2001, it was produced at the New Horizon Theatre in Pittsburgh; while in 2002, it opened at the Ensemble Theatre in Houston. Milner continued to write plays and musicals, usually combining his literary talent with the rhythms of music. His most recent play, Defending the Light, opened at The New Federal Theatre in 2000. In this play, Milner told the story of the 1846 arrest and trial of William Freeman, an accused murderer. This play was largely a condemnation of the segregation, racism, and discrimination that condemned young black men to prison and a living death with little regard for the truth. It was in the language of the characters that Milner once again captured the rhythms of music.
During January and February of 2003, Milner directed God’s Trombones, a play written by James Weldon Johnson, which was presented at the Hope Repertory Theatre. Once again, Milner’s work took black theater into a new direction. Instead of focusing on white racism and the resulting black exclusion from society, Milner used his plays to reveal the drama of black lives and to explore important issues of black life. Rather than reacting to racism directed against blacks, Milner presented the audience with thoughtful commentaries on black life. As a result, Milner eliminated the anger of early black theater from his own work, and instead, focused on a positive message. His work has proved to be a fitting legacy to that of earlier playwrights like William Blackwell Branch, who also sought to portray black life as an important element of white society.
Who’s Got His Own, first produced Off-Broadway at the American Place Theatre, October 12, 1966.
The Warning —A Theme for Linda, first produced in New York with other plays as A Black Quartet at Chelsea Theatre Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, April 25, 1969.
The Monster, first produced in Chicago at Louis Theatre Center, October, 1969.
M(ego) and the Green Ball of Freedom, first produced in Detroit at the Spirit of Shango Theatre, 1971.
What the Wine Sellers Buy, first produced in New York at New Federal Theatre, May 17, 1973.
Season’s Reasons, first produced in Detroit at Lang-ston Hughes Theatre, 1976.
Jazz-Set, first produced in Los Angeles at Mark Taper Forum, 1980.
Checkmates, first produced in Los Angeles at West-wood Playhouse, July, 1987.
Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms, first produced at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago, 1996.
Defending the Light, first produced in New York at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center, March 2000.
(Contributor) Five Black Writers, New York University Press, 1970.
(Contributor) A Black Quartet: Four New Black Plays, New American Library, 1970
(Contributor) The Black Aesthetic, Doubleday, 1971.
(Editor with Woodie King Jr. and contributor) Black Drama Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1972.
Buffalo News, May 5, 1998, p. 6C.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 31, 1996, p. 41.
Houston Chronicle, September 24, 2002, p. 12.
New York Times, July 31, 1988, p. 5; August 7, 1988, p. 13; April 22, 2002, p. 5.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 22, 2001, p. C-4.
Washington Post, April 1, 1988, p. N7.
“Annie’s Hard Knock Lives,” Village Voice, www.villagevoice.com/issues/0218/soloski.php (April 16, 2003).
“Ron(ald) Milner,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 22, 2003).
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
"Milner, Ron(ald) 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/milner-ronald-1938
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