William B. Branch, Playwright of the Black Experience, Dies at 92

William B. Branch in an undated photo. In a long career he acted, wrote, produced and directed plays and worked in television and radio.Credit…via Branch family

William B. Branch, a playwright, television writer, producer and actor who, in his work, explored African-American life and sought to challenge the stereotypes that burdened it, died on Sunday in Hawthorne, N.Y. He was 92.

The cause was metastatic cancer, his daughter, Rochelle Branch, said. Mr. Branch, who died at a hospice facility, had lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.

As a playwright Mr. Branch delved into the black experience, both in the 20th century and earlier, in Off Broadway plays like “A Medal for Willie,” about the bitterness that ensues when a black World War II veteran who had been mistreated in the service is decorated posthumously; “A Wreath for Udomo,” with its theme of colonial oppression in South Africa; and “In Splendid Error,” about the tangled relationship between the abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

He also wrote for television. In one instance he was commissioned by the actors and producers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to write “A Letter From Booker T,” a historical drama, for public television.

On radio, he directed “The Jackie Robinson Show,” on NBC in the late 1950s; for two years he was also the ghostwriter for Robinson’s nationally syndicated column for The New York Post.

Having grown up listening to his minister father declaim from the pulpit of a black church, Mr. Branch gave large credit to him for inspiring his theatrical career.

“I realized that in my father’s church were the basic elements of what was called drama,” Mr. Branch said in an interview in African American Review in 2004. (His father preached in the A.M.E. Zion Church.) “To this day, in my memory, my father remains the most awesome ‘stage’ figure I have ever seen. He didn’t call himself an actor, but let’s face it, black preachers are very effective actors.”

William Blackwell Branch, the sixth of seven boys, was born on Sept. 11, 1927, in New Haven, Conn., to James and Lola (Douglas) Branch. Both his parents were well-educated, and five of the six brothers attended college — a rarity for African-Americans at the time — three earning graduate degrees. One brother, Frederick C. Branch, was the first African-American commissioned officer in the Marine Corps.

Mr. Branch spent his first 13 years mostly in New York State before moving with his family to Charlotte, N.C., and then Washington, where, at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, he focused on acting and writing. In the mid-1940s he received a four-year scholarship to Northwestern University in Illinois, with the stage again in his sights.

He was still a freshman in 1945 when a chance meeting with the actor Canada Lee led to an audition that landed Mr. Branch an understudy role in Chicago in the all-black touring cast of Philip Yordan’s hit Broadway play “Anna Lucasta.”

After graduating in 1949, he moved to New York, intent on carving out a stage career there. But work for black actors was scarce, he discovered, and while holding down odd jobs he turned to playwriting.

One day he spotted a newspaper article about a three-star general who had been dispatched to a small Southern town during World War II to present a posthumous award for bravery to a black soldier’s mother. He clipped it out. Months later, Mr. Branch drew on that article in creating “A Medal for Willie,” a one-act play.

Produced by the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, a New York group whose sponsors included Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Langston Hughes, the play was staged at the popular Club Baron in Harlem in 1951, in the midst of the Korean War.

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Source: The New York Times