Ed Bullins: Twelve Plays and Selected Writings brings together significant and provocative plays, fiction, essays, and letters of one of the most important playwrights in the U.S., African-American, and world dramatic traditions. Bullins was a crucial figure of the Black Arts Movement of the '60s and '70s that included writers Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Lorenzo Thomas, Sonia Sanchez, and others. He was playwright-in-residence at the historic New Lafayette Theatre in New York and co-editor of Black Theatre magazine. Bullins is recipient of three Obie awards, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Living Legend award from the National Black Theatre Festival in 1997. This collection displays his audacious experimentation with dramatic genre, his foundational and historic statements about African-American dramatic writing, and his role as political activist inside the theater world and out.
Focusing on the most significant period of his long and still lively career, the anthology includes his signature plays Clara's Ole Man, In the Wine Time, and The Fabulous Miss Marie; the new, unpublished Harlem Diva; and fiction, essays, and letters, including his groundbreaking essays on black theater and a long excerpt from his controversial novel, The Reluctant Rapist. The volume is introduced and annotated by theater critic Mike Sell, providing invaluable critical and historical context to contemporary readers. Those familiar with Bullins's work and those encountering it for the first time will find this an appealing collection.
"Ed Bullins, along with Amiri Baraka, is probably the most celebrated playwright to come out of the Black Arts Movement. Bullins radically revised avant-garde drama, while reaching out to a broad audience. His plays are suffused with trenchant, dire realism depicting the everyday struggles of African Americans with psychological depth that poeticizes their everyday speech."
—Marlon Ross, University of Virginia
Photo © Lou Jones
Mike Sell is Associate Professor of English, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism: Approaching the Living Theatre, Happenings/ Fluxus, and the Black Arts Movement.
Praise / Awards
Ed Bullins was awarded the Flora Roberts Award from the Dramatists Guild
Ed Bullins with Richard Wesley (1973)
SOURCE: An Interview in Black Creation, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1973, pp. 8-10.
[In the following interview with dramatist and editor Richard Wesley, Bullins examines the responsibilities of the black artist to the black community.]
[Richard Wesley]: What points can be made for the role of the critic in the arts?
[Ed Bullins]: Many points can be made, though I question whether Black critics in this period are making points worthy of consideration. The critics almost without exception do not understand their role, are confused by its possibilities or, more often, are critics in name only.
How do you feel critics have failed thus far?
A critic should be some sort of intellectual/aesthetic guide to the audience, the reader, the appreciator. But in the Black Arts today you find a group of so-called critics almost devoid of original ideas and without an artistic or intellectual guiding ethos. They do shoddy newspaper journalism and call it criticism. They do not have the range of vision to exploit the demands of their craft. If Black Arts has a history, some philosophical principles, a cadre of evolving practitioners, then these things should be put in some sort of perspective by the critic. Critics do not do their study/work. They believe themselves knowledgeable but don't have a foggiest notion as to where the Black Artist is coming from and what resources that he or she is using. They have failed the Black people miserably. They are frauds, except for a small handful who don't even choose to write much criticism any longer or live and work outside the mainstream where the major Black Arts work is being done. Darwin Turner, Stephen Henderson, James Murray, Kushauri Kupa are several critics who do and attempt ably to do their jobs when their work appears. Larry Neal can be considered a strong head but he has abandoned the craft for the most part. There are numerous others working in the field with differing degrees of committment but falling short of the ideal.
Do you feel movies are stealing talent and audiences from Black Theater?
No. I feel that movies are developing talent and audiences for Black Theater. One art form complements another. It has been said by Clayton Riley that films are not an art form. This is ignorance at a very low level. And people listen to this type of misconception and believe it because they have few other choices.
How has Black Theater adapted itself to current Black thought?
Current Black thought has been reflected in some forms of Black theater. Black thought has even been anticipated by some Black theater: We Righteous Bombers,Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself, the Black Ritual forms developed by Robert Macbeth of the New Lafayette Theater, etc.
Some of the best minds in the Black nation are in the Black theater. And these minds affect Black thought in general.
What future do you see for Black Theater, particularly The New Lafayette?
The future of Black theater seems assured. Black theaters are mushrooming across the country. Where there were a handful of Black theater companies in the New York area alone several years ago, today there are more than twenty functioning groups.
At this point, The New Lafayette Theater continues to work. The group is engaged in stage productions, films and video tape.
Why did the New Lafayette become involved in film making?
Because there were enough members of the company interested in making quality films that the inevitable evolutionary nature of progress could not be denied.
It has been said that you (Ed Bullins) often use the New York Times to fight your battles with other blacks while still claiming to be the blackest of the black, how do you respond to that charge?
Many people read the New York Times. More Black people than one may suspect. Attacks are leveled from that media. Replying in kind and with authority only seems sensible. Being infrequently published by The Amsterdam News and Black publications like Black World that have leveled attacks but refused space to answer is very limiting. When I make my voice heard I choose to have it magnified to the best degree that I can.
What are some of the ways that community-based theater groups such as the New Lafayette can build up an audience capable of supporting the group? Or is it possible?
I don't know if it is possible. It will take lots of work and effort. We, at the New Lafayette, have been working at it for a half dozen years or more. When someone finds out please let us know. We'll probably be at our theater location on 137th and Seventh Ave. in Harlem, working as usual.
What is the definition of Black Theater?
I don't generally deal in definitions. Definitions seldom answer very much. Do not educate yourself in terms of definitions. Start with the thing. Look into its process. How does it work? What makes it work and be? Begin at a thing's reality, the bit of reality that one can perceive, and then work toward whatever is called definition. A label is little more than a label if the inner mystery of what a thing is is not solved. The working generalization that can be used: Black Theater is that theater, sometimes found in the Black community, that is done by Black people. (Of course there are various exceptions.) But how one discovers what Black Theater is is by going to any and all Black theaters in one's community or area; failing to discover Black Theater in your locale (Montana maybe?), then one should be prepared to travel. If travel is restricted by circumstances (again reality), then one should read everything that can be found concerning Black Theater. Now everything seen or read in Black Theater will not be appreciated or liked by those who see or read it; but if enough seeing and reading is done over a period of experience formulation then that person will know what he believes to be Black Theater, for that person will have experienced the fact, plus incorporated his preconceived notions and biases as to what Black Theater should be or is into some valid model. And with all of the above said it is left to the one who attempts to create Black Theater who might gain the actual inner insight into this revolutionary art form.
What is the role of the Black playwright?
To write plays.
Who should criticise Black Theater—Black critics or white critics?
Critics of Black Theater, for the most part, shouldn't be taken seriously, and then only with reservations, if they are not practicing Black Theater workers. Since whites cannot fit this condition—for how can whites practice Black Theater art?—then there is only need to regard them if they can aid in keeping a Black production alive. For Black critics not practicing Black Theater, Black literature and Black Art on the level of mastership, their sensibilities are almost exclusively rooted within the consciousness of the Black bourgeoisie—a class whose values are those of the market place and whose cultural ideals dwell in Europe—and their minds are usually filled with the garbage that that class misunderstands as intelligence. Forget about critics; the Black audience is the supreme critic of Black Theater.
Do you think there is any value in presenting "negative images" in works of Black Theater?
The cry for "positive images" as against "negative images" in Black Art during these early days of the seventies is part of the rhetorical fallout of the sixties. Do not mistake rhetoric for inspired oratory. If an image is grounded in truth then it is a depiction of a true phenomenon in the world. In fact, it is a real phenomenon, itself. And that is how education occurs—by confrontation of real phenomena with the learner's consciousness which creates realistic models within the mind. Nothing can really substitute for what really exists; and existence can be evaluated as positive or negative but actually the single real characteristic of...