Leading playwright in the black arts movement Ed Bullins dies at 86
Ed Bullins, who was among the most important black playwrights of the 20th century and a leading voice in the black arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died at his home in Roxbury, Massachusetts on Saturday. He was 86 years old.
His wife, Marva Sparks, said the cause was complications from dementia.
During a 55-year career in which he produced nearly 100 plays, Mr. Bullins sought to reflect the black urban experience without being dampened by the expectations of traditional theater. Most of his works have appeared in the black theaters of Harlem and Oakland, Calif., And it is perhaps for this reason that he never reached the heights of praise that have greeted peers like August. Wilson, whose plays appeared on Broadway and were adapted for film (and who often credited Mr. Bullins as an influence).
It suited Mr. Bullins. He has often said that he does not write for white or middle-class audiences, but for the fighters, con artists and the quiet sick whose struggles he seeks to capture in searing works like “In the Wine Time” (1968) and “The Taking of Miss Janie” (1975).
âHe was successful in bringing the grassroots people to his plays,â writer Ishmael Reed said in an interview. âHe was a black playwright who spoke about the values ââof the urban experience. Some of these people had probably never seen a room before. “
Although Mr. Bullins was an attentive student of white playwrights like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, he rejected many of their conventions, pursuing a loose and fast-paced style that also drew inspiration from avant-garde jazz and of television – two forms that he felt brought closer to the register of his target audiences.
It won three Obie Awards and two Guggenheim Fellowships, and in 1975 the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named “The Taking of Miss Janie” the best American play of that year.
Not everyone was in love with their job. Some critics, including some in the black press, thought he focused too much on the violence and criminality he saw in black working class life, and reflected it too bluntly – “The Take of Miss Janie”, for example, opens and ends with a rape scene.
But most critics, especially in the establishment, have come to respect Mr Bullins as an artist who was both passionately true to his source and nuanced enough in his outlook to avoid becoming doctrinaire.
“He touched on topics that on the surface were very specific to the black experience,” playwright Richard Wesley said in an interview. “But Ed was also very determined to show the humanity of his characters and in doing so he became accessible to audiences beyond the black community.”
Edward Artie Bullins was born July 7, 1935 in Philadelphia and raised on the city’s North Side. His father, Edward Bullins, left home when Ed was still a small child, and he was raised by his mother, Bertha Marie (Queen) Bullins, who worked for the city government.
Although he did well in school, he gravitated around the hectic street life of the North Side. He joined a gang, lost two front teeth in one fight, and was stabbed in the heart in another.
He dropped out of school in 1952 and joined the Navy. He served most of the next three years as an ensign aboard the aircraft carrier Midway, where he won a lightweight boxing championship.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1955 and, three years later, moved to Los Angeles. He attended night school to earn a high school equivalency diploma, then attended Los Angeles City College, where he started a magazine, Citadel, and wrote short stories there.
In 1962, he married the poet Pat Cooks. She accused him of threatening violence with her, and they divorced in 1966. (She later remarried and took Parker’s last name.)
Mr. Bullins’ subsequent marriage to Trixie Bullins ended in divorce. With his third wife, he is survived by his sons, Ronald and Sun Ra; his daughters, Diane Bullins, Patricia Oden and Catherine Room; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. Four other children, Ameena, Darlene, Donald and Eddie Jr., died before him.
Restless and unhappy with his work in Los Angeles, Mr. Bullins moved in 1964 to San Francisco, where he connected with a growing community of black writers. He also went from writing prose to writing plays – partly, he said, because he was lazy, but also because he felt the theater gave him access. more direct to the daily experience of blacks.
His first play, “How Do You Do,” an absurd one-act encounter between a black middle-class couple and a black working-class man, was produced in 1965, to favorable reviews. But he remained unsure of his decision to write plays until a few months later, when he saw a double production of “The Dutchman” and “The Slave”, two plays by Amiri Baraka, then known as named after LeRoi Jones, a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement.
âI thought to myself, I have to be on the right track,â Mr. Bullins told The New Yorker in 1973. âI could see that an experienced playwright like Jones was dealing with these same qualities and living conditions of black people who moved me. “
The black arts movement, then still primarily an east coast phenomenon, was a loose affiliation of novelists, playwrights and poets whose work sought to reflect the modern black experience on its own terms – written and produced by black people. in black spaces for a black audience.
Mr. Bullins had found his community and, through it, his voice. He met a circle of Bay Area writers, actors and activists, who began to perform his work in bars and cafes.
Among them was Eldridge Cleaver, who, after his release from prison in 1966, used some of the proceeds from his “Soul on Ice” memoir to found Black House, an arts and community center in San Francisco, with Mr. Bullins as chief. artist in residence.
Black House also became the city seat for the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Mr. Bullins became the party’s Culture Minister.
But his role in the Black Panthers was short-lived. The party, at least from his point of view, saw art only as a weapon, and he was annoyed at Mr. Seale’s insistence that he create didactic, often explicitly Marxist, pieces. He also became frustrated with the party’s interest in building a coalition with radical white allies, as he sought a movement wholly independent of white culture.
âI have no messianic envy,â he told the New York Times in 1975. âAround every corner, someone tells you that Christ or Mao is the answer. You can take any Isme you want and be saved by it. If you are part of a movement and that fills you up, that’s fine, but I like to watch everything.
He left the party at the end of 1966, just before Black House closed.
Mr Bullins considered moving to Europe or South America, but changed his mind when Robert Macbeth, the founder of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem, invited him to be the artist in residence there.
He arrived in New York in 1967 and the next six years of work, mainly at the New Lafayette Theater, represented the peak of his career. The theater was a complete set: a 14-member acting troupe, 14 musicians, several playwrights and directors, and an affiliated art gallery, the Weusi Artist Collective, which produced sets.
Mr. Bullins has also led workshops for aspiring playwrights, many of whom, like Mr. Wesley, have become important voices among the next generation of black theater performers.
A year after his arrival, he completed “In the Wine Time”, his first complete play and the first in a series he called his “Twentieth Century Cycle” – 20 plays that told the story of post-war urban life through a group of friends. . In 1971, he won his first Obie, for “The Fabulous Miss Marie” and “In New England Winter”.
He left the New Lafayette Theater in 1973, shortly before it closed for lack of funding. His work in the 1970s was presented at the New Federal Theater, La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, Public Theater and elsewhere.
In 1972, he entered a war of words with the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, which was showing his play “The Duplex”. Although he initially approved the production, he later said in an interview that the play’s “original black intentions” had been “thwarted” and “its artistic integrity trampled upon,” turning it into a “minstrel show” .
He traded attacks with producer Jules Irving and director Gilbert Moses in The New York Times and elsewhere, but in the end the play continued. It has received mixed reviews.
This episode, fair or not, gave Mr. Bullins a reputation for being difficult to work with, one of the reasons he cited for returning to the West Coast in the 1980s. He continued to write plays, but he has also produced other works, including Mr. Reed, at the Bullins Memorial Theater in Oakland, named after his son Eddie Jr., who died in a car crash in 1978.
Mr. Bullins has also returned to school. He received a BA in English from the San Francisco Campus of the University of Antioch in 1989 and an MA in Dramatic Writing from San Francisco State University in 1994.
The following year he moved to Boston, where he became a professor in the drama department at Northeastern University. He retired in 2012.
By then, he had long since changed his mind about his audience, largely because he and other members of the black arts movement had succeeded in their mission to build a black cultural cannon.
âOf course, black writers can write for all audiences,â he told the New York Times in 1982. âMy feeling is that the question of whether black theater should appeal to whites was more valid ago. is ten years old Since then, the black theater has taken off in all directions.