Branch, William Blackwell 1927–
William Blackwell Branch 1927–
Author, playwright, educator, producer, director
In the period following World War II, there were few dramatists writing plays that accurately depicted the lives of black Americans, nor were there dramas that attempted to examine the issues surrounding the racial inequity that continued to exist in the United States. During the early 1950s most writers failed to capture the effects of segregation on black society or the life the existed beyond the white picket fences of a racially divided America. But within ten years, a young, prolific, and talented black dramatist and producer, William Blackwell Branch, would use theater, television, and radio to demonstrate that black writers could make an important contribution that would help audiences understand the complexities of race in America.
Branch was born on September 11, 1927, in New Haven, Connecticut. He was the sixth in a family of seven sons born to father, James Matthew Branch, and mother, lola Douglas Branch. Branch grew up in several places, including Charlotte, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and the suburbs of New York City, as his father’s church transferred the family to different parishes. Branch’s father was a Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, whose pulpit sermons had a role in inspiring his son’s early interest in acting. In the introduction to his 1993 drama anthology, Crosswinds: Black Dramatists of the Diaspora, Branch described the importance of religion and his father’s sermons in stimulating his own desire for performance. Calling his father the “most awe-inspiring ‘stage’ figure I have ever seen,” Branch noted the many emotions that his father’s sermons elicited from the congregation. The Reverend Branch used the conflict between good and evil and the stories of the Old and New Testaments to create the kind of excitement, ritual, and color that could arouse his parishioners. These sermons were the kind of “dramatic events” that Branch envisioned for himself as an actor. He began acting in small school performances and with recitations in church and eventually became an actor in the occasional short plays presented in his father’s church. Branch saw church as theater, as he related in Crosswinds, “Sunday morning service was the entertainment high-spot” for many black children growing up during the Great Depression, when Saturday matinees were not a possibility.
At a Glance…
Born on September 11, 1927, in New Haven, CT; children: Rochelle. Education: Northwestern University, B.S., 1949; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1958, graduate study, 1958-60; Yale University, graduate study, 1965-66. Military Service: US Army, 1951-1954.
Career: Actor, 1945-60; Ebony magazine, field representative, 1949-60; free-lance producer, writer, and director of plays, films, and news documentaries, 1950-1987; The Jackie Robinson Show, NBC Radio, director, 1959-60; The City, Educational Broadcasting Corp., staff producer, contributing writer, and director of documentary films, 1962-64; The Alma John Show (syndicated radio program), writer and director, 1963-65; NBC, writer and producer of television news specials, 1972-73; William Branch Associates, New Rochelle, NY, president, 1973–; Black Perspectives on the News, Public Broadcasting Service, executive producer, 1978-79; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, professor of theater, dramatic literature, and communications, 1985-94; William Paterson College, Wayne, NJ, visiting distinguished professor, 1994-96.
Selected awards: Robert E. Sherwood Television Award and National Conference of Christians and Jews citations, both for television drama Light in the Southern Sky, 1958; Emmy Award nomination and American Film Festival blue ribbon, both for television documentary Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class, 1969; American Book Award, for Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama, 1992.
Address: Home —53 Cortlandt Avenue, New Rochelle, NY, 10801.
While in high school, Branch began to write, winning the first of many prizes for his work. Also while in high school, Branch became interested in performance as a competition, winning a series of speech contests. He was so good in these competitions that he won both a four-year Pepsi-Cola Scholarship in a nationwide competition and a four-year scholarship in an Elk’s Oration contest. Branch was able to use these scholarships to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, after he completed high school in 1945.
At Northwestern Branch began to study theater arts and playwriting. As a college freshman, Branch had a role in the national touring company of the hit Broadway play, Anna Lucasta, when it played in Chicago. His success in this role proved to be a motivating impetus in the career choice that had always interested him as a child. After earning a Bachelor of Science in speech in 1949, Branch left Northwestern, and, like so many other hopeful young actors, moved to New York City. He began looking for work in the theater, where, in spite of Branch’s talent and experience, he discovered little success as a black actor. The roles that existed were stereotypical and demeaning and offered little opportunity for expression or professional growth.
His attempts to find acting roles convinced Branch that if he wanted a good role, he would first have to write that role. To support his playwriting and acting efforts, Branch spent his first year out of college, from 1949 to 1950, as a representative for Ebony magazine, but this was only a temporary job, as he continued to assess the opportunities in the theater. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Branch observed that when he first looked for acting jobs, he quickly discovered that “parts for actors were few and far between.” As a result, he soon began to understand that “African Americans must write and produce their own plays.”
Branch’s first play, A Medal for Willie, was produced in October of 1951 at Harlem’s Club Baron, on what he described to CBB as a “shoestring budget.” This first play was set at the memorial service for a young soldier who had died in defense of his country. In the play the mother of a soldier is bitter that her son is honored in death, while in life he was the object of segregation, racism, and hate. Branch’s dramatic observation, that medals cannot honor what society has neglected, was especially powerful for its time. The audience responded to the initial performance of this play with enthusiasm, although Branch was given little time to enjoy his success. The very next morning, in what was surely military irony, he was inducted into the United States Army.
Branch spent most of his army tour in Germany, where he continued to write. His next play, In Splendid Error, was a historical drama based on the life of Frederick Douglass that relied upon source material from Douglass’ autobiography, as well as two biographies that had been written during the 1940s. In Crosswinds: Black Dramatists of the Diaspora, Branch points to the “widespread ignorance of important Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass,” as one reason for his choice of topic. He also saw certain similarities between the abolitionist movement during the 1850s and the progressive political ideas under attack during the McCarthy era of the early 1950’s.
In Splendid Error had its premiere off-Broadway at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York City on October 26, 1954. Although it earned mixed reviews, the play was successful enough with audiences to continue for the next four months. Another play, Experiment in Black, followed in 1955, but by this time, Branch had also begun to write for television. His first effort was, “What is Conscience?,” which appeared in 1955 as an episode on the CBS television religious series, Lamp Unto My Feet. Also in 1955, Branch was the writer for “The Better Lot,” an ABC television program on a series, The Way. The following year, he became the writer for a syndicated series, Let’s Find Out, sponsored by the National Council of Churches.
During the next few years of Branch’s life, he made the decision to continue his education. Although he was finding success as a playwright and television writer, Branch chose to return to school to learn more about the techniques he needed for the career he had chosen. In 1958 he completed a master of fine art in Dramatic Arts at Columbia University in New York. While at Columbia he was awarded the Hannah B. Del Vecchio Prize for achievement in playwriting. Branch next decided to continue to study at Columbia for an additional year, doing post-graduate work in film production.
Even while he was at Columbia, Branch continued to write more plays, including Light in the Southern Sky and Fifty Steps Toward Freedom. Light in the Southern Sky would become an NBC television drama in 1958, as part of the Frontiers of Faith series. Branch won two awards in 1958 for Light in the Southern Sky: the Robert E. Sherwood Television Award and a Citation from the National Conference of Christians & Jews. Branch was also awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in Drama during 1959 and 1960. Also during 1959 and 1960, he directed the Jackie Robinson Show for NBC Radio. This program starred the activist and former baseball player in an interview-format half-hour show.
Displaying little interest in cutting back, the beginning of the 1960s found Branch just as busy as he had been in the last half dozen years. During 1960 Branch had three plays in production: A Wreath for Udomo, The Man on Meeting Street, and To Follow the Phoenix. A Wreath for Udomo played on the London stage to good reviews, but by the end of 1960, Branch had decided that he needed to move away from theater and concentrate on television and film. When queried by CBB about his choice to leave the theater, Branch responded: “I had to eat; I had a family to support.” There was little economic reward for playwrights, and as Branch observed, “To be a dramatist is a futile exercise, except for a few who stick with it. The older generations move on and new generations have new outlooks, and so tastes change.” The lack of economic reward and his growing perception that the audiences for theater were dwindling helped to moved Branch more solidly toward television writing, which provided more of a commercial and economic success. After the switch to film and television writing, Branch would write only one more play many years later.
The move to radio and film seemed a natural means of expression for Branch, whose many talents adapted quickly to these new venues. For three years, from 1962 to 1964, Branch worked as a staff producer and writer for the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, WNET-13, in New York City. During this period, he produced, wrote, created, and developed, programs and specials, including Gypsy in My Soul, a study of the Gypsy population in New York. He was also responsible for a series pilot during this period, called The Explorers Club, which focused on the Explorers Club of New York City. While at WNET, Branch also appeared on air as a reporter and narrator.
From 1963 to 1965, Branch moved back into radio as the writer and director for a syndicated program called The Alma John Show. Although he continued to be in demand as a writer, Branch still took time to commute to the Yale University School of Drama in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was appointed an American Broadcasting Company Resident Fellow in Screenwriting for 1965 and 1966. His first major project after leaving Yale was Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class, a 90 minute documentary for the Education Broadcasting Corporation, which won a Blue Ribbon Award from the 1969 American Film Festival. Still a Brother was also nominated for an Emmy award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Branch’s documentary became the first Black-produced film to receive either of these honors.
During the 1970s Branch continued to contribute several important film features to television broadcasting. However, he also took the time to create his own firm, William Branch Associates, which was established in 1973 to create, write, and produce films and television programming. Branch’s firm also offered consulting services and expertise in the field of television and film. During 1973 and 1974, he was the writer and consultant for a 30-episode series, Afro-American Perspectives, a production of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. The following year, Branch wrote his last play, Baccalaureate, an intense family drama, which was produced in Hamilton, Bermuda, at the City Hall Theatre in 1975. Then, in 1978 and 1979, Branch was the executive producer for Black Perspective on the News, also for the Public Broadcasting Service.
While Branch had begun his career as an actor, he had very quickly developed as a playwright and later a film and media writer and producer. But he was also a man who understood the value of education in developing and sharpening his own skills—time at Northwestern, Columbia, and Yale had proven their worth in helping to expand Branch’s knowledge. Thus it seemed only reasonable that eventually, he would close the circle and begin to teach what he had learned. As he related to CBB, Branch came to teaching late in his career. He “went into teaching reluctantly,” but, as he recounted, “once I got started, I did enjoy it.” During his academic career, he held appointments as a visiting professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Campus, as the Visiting Luce Fellow at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and as a Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In January of 1985 Branch was appointed professor of Theatre and Dramatic Literature in the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. According to the CBB interview, while at Cornell, he “reestablished the study and performance of materials from Black drama, instituted a course on African Americans in the communications media, and launched a seminar in African American Creative Writing.” While at Cornell, Branch still continued to write for television. He is especially proud of a 1987 drama that he created and wrote for the Public Broadcasting Company anthology series, Ossie & Ruby. “A Letter From Booker T.,” which was commissioned by its stars, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, was awarded a citation from the National Conference on Christians & Jews in 1988.
After many years of writing for theater, film, television, and radio, Branch turned to writing books. The first of these works was Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama, which Branch edited and for which he wrote the introduction. This book was followed by a second collection of plays, Crosswinds: An Anthology of Black Dramatists in the Diaspora, which Branch again edited and for which he also wrote the introduction. Both books have found significant success as college textbooks. After Branch left Cornell in 1994, he spent another two years as a visiting distinguished professor at The William Paterson College of New Jersey, before retiring in 1996.
Through his nearly 50-year career, Branch has proven himself a prolific, as well as talented writer. His many plays and television specials have sought to eliminate the stereotypes that have haunted black Americans, while giving voice to some of the most important issues of the black life. Then through his teaching, Branch has endeavored to guide a new generation of writers. When his career is considered in its entirety, William Branch had clearly created an important legacy on racial equality during the last half of the twentieth century.
Film and television productions
The Way, ABC, 1955.
“What is Conscience?,” an episode of Lamp Unto My Feet, CBS, 1956.
Let’s Find Out, syndicated, 1956.
Light in the Southern Sky, NBC, 1958.
“Gypsy in My Soul,” an episode of The City, WNET-13, 1964.
Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class, National Educational Television, 1968.
Afro-American Perspectives, PBS, 1973-1974.
Black Perspectives on the News, PBS, 1978-1979.
“Letter From Booker T.,” an episode of Ossie & Ruby, PBS, 1987.
A Medal for Willie, first produced in New York City at Club Baron, 1951.
In Splendid Error, first produced in New York City at Greenwich Mews Theatre, 1954.
Experiment in Black, first produced in New York, 1955.
Light in the Southern Sky, first produced in New York at the Waldorf Astoria, 1958.
Fifty Steps Toward Freedom, first produced in New York, at the New York Coliseum, 1959.
A Wreath for Udomo, first produced in Cleveland at the Karamu Theatre, 1960.
The Man on Meeting Street, first produced in New York at the Waldorf Astoria, 1960.
To Follow the Phoenix, first produced in Chicago at the Civic Opera House, 1960.
Baccalaureate, first produced in Hamilton, Bermuda, at the City Hall Theatre, 1975.
The Jackie Robinson Show, NBC Radio, 1959-1960.
The Alma John Show, syndicated program series, 1963-1965.
Also edited and wrote introductions for: Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Drama, New York: Mentor, 1992; Crosswinds: An Anthology of Black Dramatists in the Diaspora, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Crosswinds: Black Dramatists of the Diaspora, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. xi-xxvii.
“William (Blackwell) Branch,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 22, 2003.)
Additional information for this profile was obtained from William B. Branch, including: a personal statement given to Contemporary Black Biography on February 21, 2003; a curriculum vitae provided February 21, 2003; and a telephone interview with Contemporary Black Biography on March 7, 2003.
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger