July 2, 1935
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, playwright Ed Bullins attended public schools there and received a B.A. from Antioch University in San Francisco in 1989. He did graduate work at San Francisco State University. In 1976 Columbia College in Chicago awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. From 1952 to 1955 he served in the United States Navy.
During the 1960s on the West Coast, Bullins was one of the leaders of the black arts movement and a founder and producer from 1965 to 1967 of Black Arts/West, an African-American theater group in San Francisco. He was also a cofounder of the Black Arts Alliance and Black House, a militant cultural-political group that included Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale, all three of whom later became Black Panther Party leaders. Bullins served briefly as minister of culture of the Black Panthers in California. He left Black House after a disagreement over ideology. As an artist, Bullins was interested in cultural awakening, whereas the revolutionaries thought that creative work should be incendiary enough to stir people to action. While he was on the West coast, some of his earliest plays were written and produced: Clara's Ole Man (1965), Dialect Determinism (1965), and How Do You Do? (1965).
At the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem from 1968 to 1973, Bullins was playwright-in-residence and, later, associate director. He was also editor of Black Theatre magazine. After the New Lafayette Theatre closed, he was writer-in-residence at the American Place Theatre in 1973 and on the staff of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Writers' Unit from 1975 to 1982. Best known as a playwright, Bullins has also written fiction, poetry, and essays.
Inspired by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), whose plays Dutchman and The Slave he saw in San Francisco during the 1960s, Bullins has written many plays on the African-American experience, dealing with ordinary African-American life and, in some cases, race relations. A pioneer interested in developing new theater forms, he writes in many styles: realism, naturalism, satire, and farce, as well as absurdist and other avant-garde methods. He has written black rituals, street-theater plays, and agitprop plays, but his main dramatic works have been what he terms "theater of reality" plays, which are mostly naturalistic.
Bullins's productivity as a playwright and his writing about the African-American experience have given him considerable influence. New York theater practitioners such as Robert Macbeth, founder and director of the now-defunct New Lafayette Theatre, embraced Bullins, along with audiences, critics, and publishers. For his plays he has earned the Drama Desk-Vernon Rice Award (1968) and Obie awards (1971 and 1975). The Taking of Miss Janie (1975), one of his best-known plays, received the Drama Critics Circle Award as the best American play of 1974–1975 and was selected as a Burns Mantle Best Play for the same year.
In addition to the theater awards, Bullins has been the recipient of Rockefeller grants (1968, 1970, 1973, and 1983), Guggenheim fellowships (1971 and 1976), and National Endowment for the Arts grants (1972 and 1989). His plays have been produced throughout the United States and abroad. He has taught at various colleges and universities, including New York University, City College of San Francisco, and the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1990s he published New/Lost Plays by Ed Bullins, a collection of his work. In 1997 the Negro Ensemble Company produced a new play, Boys x Men (that is, "Boys Times Men"), a play that concerns family, class, and memory.
Hay, Samuel A. "'What Shape Shapes Shapelessness?': Structural Elements in Ed Bullins' Plays." Black World (April 1974): 20–26.
Hay, Samuel A. Ed Bullins: A Literary Biography. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Sanders, Leslie Catherine. "'Like Niggers': Ed Bullins' Theater of Reality." In The Development of Black Theater in America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988, pp. 176–228.
jeanne-marie a. miller (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005