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Ron Milner, 66; Playwright Chronicled Lives of Blacks

Times Staff Writer

Playwright Ron Milner, a prominent theatrical chronicler of African American lives, has died. He was 66.

Milner died July 16 from complications of liver cancer in a Detroit hospital.

Though Milner’s first successes depicted the urban poor, his 1987 “Checkmates” was about middle-class strivers. “Checkmates” was staged with starry casts at two Los Angeles venues and later on Broadway.

Milner’s “What the Wine-Sellers Buy” and “Don’t Get God Started” also played in Los Angeles on the way to New York.

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Milner was born and raised in Detroit, the son of a laborer and a waitress.

He graduated from high school, but credited much of his education and inspiration to become a writer to books he had read on his own, including the novels of Mark Twain.

Working as a messenger as a young man, Milner met Woodie King Jr., who was interested in a theater career. Their friendship deepened when both attended a performance of the groundbreaking African American play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Usually credited with steering Milner away from writing novels to writing plays, King later became a New York producer and director and frequent Milner collaborator.

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King co-produced Milner’s early work at a Detroit cabaret. Recalling that period in a 1987 interview, Milner told The Times that he was most affected by seeing the cabaret’s custodians stop sweeping to watch the rehearsals.

“Their reaction was immediate; they either booed or applauded or whatever,” he said. “I realized that if I’m going to write for them, I’d better write in the oral, participatory tradition rather than a strictly literary one.”

Milner’s play “Who’s Got His Own” received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and was produced at the American Place Theatre in New York in 1966.

“What the Wine-Sellers Buy,” which is about a poor child and a pimp who lives next door, played in an experimental series at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1973, a year before it became the first play by an African American to be produced by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival at Lincoln Center.

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Milner’s “Jazz Set” also played in an experimental series at the Taper, in 1979. “Don’t Get God Started,” a gospel musical that Milner wrote and directed, with music by gospel star Marvin Winans, was staged in Los Angeles in 1986 and 1989 and played 85 performances on Broadway in 1987-88.

“Checkmates,” about older and younger couples who live in the same building, featured Denzel Washington and Paul Winfield in its first two L.A. runs in 1987, at the now-defunct Inner City Cultural Center and the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen). In a 1988 run at the Westwood, the cast included Vanessa Williams and Marla Gibbs.

A Times review of the Inner City production called the play “an articulate and trenchant report from the sexual and generational battlefront.” The play landed on Broadway in 1988 with Washington, Winfield, Ruby Dee and Marsha Jackson and lasted 172 performances despite a negative review by the New York Times.

Milner lived in Los Angeles from 1979 to 1981 but spent most of his life in Detroit.

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He is survived by sons Raymarc of Omaha, Gabrey of Los Angeles and Maher of Germantown, Md.; daughters Rhonda and Iman of Detroit; and eight grandchildren.


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