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Playwright alumna’s foundation as curious thinker was built at JMU


 
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SUMMARY: With a management company, a book agent and a theater agent representing her, and distribution giants like HBO and Amazon on her résumé, Jihan Crowther is making her mark on Hollywood and beyond.


By Khalil Garriott (’04)

Playwright. Television writer. Essayist. Storyteller. Photographer. To borrow the vernacular of creatives in Los Angeles, where she’s based, Jihan Crowther is a multi-hyphenate.

“My foundation of art, story, narrative and adventurous thinking was, in many ways, built at JMU,” Crowther said. “The first steps to getting me where I am now.”

Perhaps the crown jewel of Crowther’s career to date was her role as a staff writer on The Underground Railroad, a 10-episode, historical fiction miniseries on Amazon Prime Video released in May 2021. An adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, the series was directed by Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins.

After debuting to plenty of positive press, The Underground Railroad received seven Emmy nominations. Crowther, understandably, wishes that Jenkins had won the directing Emmy—but she’s not dwelling on it. “I think anyone who watched even a few minutes of the show could see that what he did with The Underground Railroad was masterful, breathtaking work,” she said.

Jihan Crowther Underground Railroad
Crowther was a staff writer on Amazon’s 10-episode, historical fiction miniseries The Underground Railroad, which received seven Emmy nominations.

Crowther and her siblings are first-generation Americans, which influences the way she writes. As a child of immigrants from Liberia and Sierra Leone, her worldview is shaped by her lineage. She has published articles in respected outlets like Esquire and Jezebel, including a 2016 first-person piece titled “What Dating Abroad Taught Me About Stateside Racism,” which has 561 article comments.

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As a child of immigrants from Liberia and Sierra Leone, Crowther’s worldview is shaped by her lineage.

“Being first-generation naturally makes you keep an eye on the rest of the world via your parents’ cultures and beyond,” she said. “For example, we weren’t allowed to only watch and read news from America; we had to know the news from different perspectives and international news organizations. That was annoying as a kid, but I respect it in adulthood.”

An English major at JMU, Crowther studied abroad in London—a life-changing experience for her—then returned there to intern at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre after graduation.

She said, “After that semester, all I wanted was to be in the world and learn everything I could. Our teachers were working artists, and we learned by immersion. It was intoxicating. I encourage every student to study abroad if they’re able to and even a tiny bit interested in doing so.”

Not only did she study abroad, Crowther also was a Student Ambassador, member of the Contemporary Gospel Singers and worked in the Office of Residence Life as a program adviser. But her involvement outside of the classroom didn’t impede her growth inside it; she was also very serious about her academics. Crowther fondly credits her former JMU instructors Joanne Gabbin, Susan Facknitz, Roger Hall and Jim Ruff for instilling in her everything from lifelong learning (Gabbin) and confidence (Facknitz) to feeling emboldened (Hall) and being a film historian (Ruff).

Paula Polglase (’92, ’96M), a JMU development officer, supervised Crowther when she was a First Year Involvement student assistant in Residence Life. She remembers Crowther as someone who “always radiated quiet joy,” with the best laugh and a sly sense of humor.

“I remember thinking that she noticed everything going on around her all the time,” Polglase said of Crowther, who studied creative writing and film at JMU. “Her interests across academic and student involvement really gave her great access to observing different people. She was curious, and her insights and perspectives always made our staff think. We were a better staff because of her.”

Crowther’s plays have been read, produced and developed at venues around the world, from New York City and Los Angeles to London, Scotland and Montreal—and places in between. She was selected for the New York Theatre Workshop Playwriting Fellowship. She’s represented by a management company, and has a book agent and theater agent. And with distribution giants like HBO and Amazon on her résumé, she’ll continue to make her mark on Hollywood.

“The grand hope is … to get the opportunity to run my own show,” Crowther said. “Beyond that, I’d like to start writing for film as well as TV.”

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Published: Friday, December 17, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, April 19, 2022

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