Ron Milner (1938 – 2004) was a playwright, writer, editor, critic, and director who was known affectionately as the “people's playwright” for his ongoing commitment to using Black theater for the advancement of Black people.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Milner graduated from Detroit's Northeastern High School. He attended Highland Park Junior College, Detroit Institute of Technology, and Columbia University in New York. He then received two prestigious literary grants, the John Hay Whitney Fellowship (1962) and a Rockefeller Fellowship (1965), to work on a novel, The Life of the Brothers Brown, which has never been published. Milner has also taught widely and was writer in residence at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) from 1966 to 1967, where his friendship with Langston Hughes, who urged him to use a personal voice in his writing, matured.
His first major play, Who's Got His Own, premiered in Harlem in 1967. Together with his friend, the producer Woodie King, he joined the American Place Theatre, where Who's Got His Own and The Warning: A Theme for Linda (1969, published in A Black Quartet: Four New Black Plays, 1970) were conceived and performed. What the Wine-Sellers Buy, which earned over a million dollars in 1974, deals with a young Black man choosing between good and evil while simultaneously addressing the issue of Black male responsibility.
From 1979 to 1981 Milner lived in California, teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California and doing community work. He then returned to his hometown, Detroit. Milner's Roads of the Mountaintops (1986) deals with the internal struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr., following his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Checkmates (1987), which starred Denzel Washington, portrays the potential strength of Black love. Don't Get God Started (1988) is a gospel-tinged musical play done for the family singing group the Winans.
A lesser-known work from Milner's career is his short story “Junkie Joe Had Some Money,” which was anthologized in Langston Hughes's Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967). Milner's other published plays include The Monster (Drama Review, 1968), M(ego) and the Green Ball of Freedom (Black World, 1968), and What the Wine-Sellers Buy (Samuel French, 1974). In “Black Magic, Black Art”(Negro Digest, Apr. 1967; Black Poets and Prophets, 1972), Milner proclaimed that Black Art must affirm, inspire, and touch the souls of Black people.
Perhaps Milner's most significant contribution to the field of African-American letters is Black Drama Anthology (1972), coedited with Woodie King. One of the earliest and certainly one of the most respected anthologies of Black plays, it documented important works by Milner, Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, and Langston Hughes, among others.