Bullins, Ed 1935–
Ed Bullins 1935–
Beginning his career in the politically turbulent San Francisco Bay area of the 1960s, Ed Bullins created plays that often reflected the militant spirit of the times. Viewed as a whole, however, his body of work embodies more universal themes. His violent dramas of individuals enmeshed in spirals of destruction and self-destruction have resonated with theatergoers of all races, for they explore the feelings of people trapped in a hostile society that offers no wider sense of community. Bullins, the angry young playwright of the 1960s and 1970s, saw his work take on near-classic longevity by the end of the century, with the appearance of new productions and a book-length study of his writings.
Born July 2, 1935, Bullins grew up in a tough neighborhood in north Philadelphia. His mother was a government worker, and for the most part his childhood was a peaceful one; he excelled as a student in a mostly white grade school, and the family took vacations in rural Maryland. However, Bullins attended an inner-city junior high school, where he became involved with a street gang. In one confrontation he was stabbed, and his heart temporarily stopped. Bullins later wrote about this near-death experience in his sole novel, The Reluctant Rapist; though few of his dramas were overtly autobiographical, they often take violence as a subject.
Bullins dropped out of high school and entered the U.S. Navy in 1952, remaining in the service until 1955 and continuing his education through avid reading. He was also a formidable lighweight boxer. After leaving the Navy he returned to Philadelphia, married, and had several children, but he was restless, and in 1958 lit out for Los Angeles, leaving his family behind. He finished a high school equivalency degree and enrolled at Los Angeles City College, where he studied for several years and began to write short stories, briefly editing a campus literary magazine. Some of Bullins’s stories were collected in the volume The Hungered One: Early Writings, published in 1971.
Realizing that the African American audience he hoped to reach did not have a strong tradition of reading fiction, Bullins turned instead to drama in the early 1960s. At first, his tumultuous works were too far out of the decorous mainstream of the day to even get a hearing. “Nobody would produce my work,” he later told The New Yorker. “Some people said my language was too obscene, and others said the stuff I was writing was not theatre in the traditional sense.” Bullins persisted,
Born July 2, 1935, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Edward and Bertha Marie (Queen) Bullins. Education: Attended Los Angeles City College, San Francisco State College (now University), B.A., Antioch University, 1989; M.F.A., San Francisco State University, 1994. Has written under pseudonym Kingsley B.Bass, Jr.
Career: Playwright First play produced, Clara’s Ole Man, 1965; involved with Black Panther party, 1965–67; served briefly as Black Panther Minister of Culture; joined New Lafayette Theatre, New York, 1967; became playwright-in-residence, 1968, and associate director, 1971; became playwright-in-residence, American Place Theatre, 1973; guest instructor various colleges and universities, 1970s; instructor in playwriting and dramatic performance, City College of San Francisco, 1984–88; lecturer, Sonoma State University and University of California at Berkeley, 1988–95; Professor of Theater, Northeastern University, Boston, 1995-.
Selected awards: Rockefeller Foundation grants, 1968, 1970, and 1973; Obie awards fordistinguished playwriting, 1971 and 1975; Black Arts Alliance award, 1971; Guggenheimfellowships for playwriting, 1971 and 1976; National Endowment for the Arts playwritinggrants, 1972 and 1989; New York Drama Critics Circle award (for The Taking of MissJanie), 1975.
Addresses: Home— 2128A Fifth St., Berkeley, CA 9471; Agent— c\o Helen Merrill, 435 W. 23rd St., 1A, New York, NY 10011.
inspired in part by the pioneering short dramas of playwright LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), then just beginning to transform black theater with their heated intensity. He moved to San Francisco in 1964 and enrolled in a writing program at San Francisco State College.
The wide-open cultural atmosphere of the Bay Area in the middle 1960s proved congenial for Bullins, and it was there that one of his plays was first produced in 1965. That play, Clara’s Ole Man, actually went on to gain wide acclaim for Bullins after a 1968 New York production. Like many of Bullins’s plays, it is set in a slum area in the 1950s. Its main character is a young man who goes to visit a woman in her apartment, thinking that her “ole man” is away. The “ole man,” however, turns out to be a lesbian named Big Girl; the protagonist encounters various grotesque characters and is finally beaten severely by members of a street gang. The work anticipated Bullins’s characteristic creation of an atmosphere of simmering, senseless, almost random violence.
In San Francisco Bullins was closely associated with a group of militant black intellectuals, including Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, that soon took shape as the Black Panthers. Bullins even served for a time as the organization’s Minister of Culture, and wrote several plays that embodied black nationalist aims, explicitly directed at blacks and shunning any attempt to appeal to white audiences. In 1970’s The Gentleman Caller, a maid murders her mistress and her visitor, and then answers the mistress’s phone with apocalyptic pronouncements: “It is time for Black people to come together… to form a nation that will rise from our enslaved mass and meet the oppressor… meet the devil and conquer and destroy him.”
But Bullins always maintained a certain distance from revolutionary rhetoric, and even parodied it at times. Despite his rejection of the validity of their judgments of his work, Bullins’s plays appealed to many white critics, who praised the raw power of his ghetto dramas, finding in them elemental examples of the tragic power of theater at its best. Bullins moved to New York, where in 1968 he became involved with the New Lafayette Theatre, an organization based in the Harlem neighborhood that attempted to build a solid tradition of theatrical repertory in a black urban setting. It was a major institution of the so-called “black arts” movement. The theatre closed in 1973, but not before Bullins had written a dozen plays for it, often considered the greatest among his more than fifty works.
In the early 1970s Bullins reached what was probably the high-water mark of his career in terms of popular success. He won numerous awards, including three Obie awards, a New York Drama Critics Circle award, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship—something that would have been anathema to the Black Panther adherent of just a few years earlier. Bullins became playwright-in-residence at New York’s American Place Theatre, and the drama departments of prominent Eastern educational institutions began to seek him out for guest lectureships.
In the late 1970s, Bullins suffered a decline in the frequency with which his plays were produced in New York, resulting in part from attacks on his work by feminist critics dismayed at the aspect of sexual violence that they often contained. Bullins entered a prolonged period of what seemed to be creative silence, although he continued to teach, for a time at prestigious Amherst College, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College. He returned to school himself, finally earning a B.A. degree from Antioch University in 1989, and going on for a Master of Fine Arts degree at San Francisco State University, granted in 1994.
In the 1990s it emerged that Bullins, though occupying the spotlight less than before, had continued to write and to live a creative life. Some of his earlier dramas had been conceived as a large group that Bullins called the Twentieth-Century Cycle; he continued work on the cycle, which centered loosely on a group of core characters. (The first cycle play was Bullins’s very first full-length play, 1968’s In the Wine Time.) In 1993 he issued a printed collection of his works, New\Lost Plays by Ed Bullins, and in 1997 his play Boy x Man (“Boy Times Man”), was produced. His eventful life itself also came full circle: in 1994 he was involved in an auto crash that once again brought him to the brink of death.
Clara’s Ole Man, 1965.
The Theme Is Blackness, 1966.
In the Wine Time, 1968.
The Gentleman Caller, 1969.
Street Sounds, 1970.
The Duplex: A Black Love Fable in Four Movements, 1971.
The Reluctant Rapist (novel), 1973.
The Taking of Miss Janie, 1975.
The Mystery of Phyllis Wheatley, 1976.
Boy x Man, 1997.
Bowman, John S., The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, volume 73, Gale, 1999.
Hay, Samuel A., Ed Bullins: A Literary Biography, Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Riggs, Thomas, Contemporary Dramatists, sixth ed., St. James Press, 1999.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1999.
Valade, Roger, Ed., The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Gale, 1996.
New Yorker, June 16, 1973.
—James M. Manheim
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