A radical playwright in both the simple and the complex senses of the term, Ed Bullins consistently challenges the members of his audience to test their political and aesthetic beliefs against the multifaceted reality of daily life in the United States. Committed to a revolutionary black nationalist consciousness, he attacks both liberal and conservative politics as aspects of an oppressive context dominated by a white elite. Equally committed to the development of a radical alternative to European American modernist aesthetics, he incorporates a wide range of cultural materials into specifically black performances. The clearest evidence of Bullins’s radical sensibility, however, is his unwavering refusal to accept any dogma, white or black, traditional or revolutionary, without testing it against a multitude of perspectives and experiences. Throughout a career that has earned for him serious consideration alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams as the United States’ greatest dramatist, Bullins has subjected the hypocrisies and corruptions of European and African American culture to rigorous examination and reevaluation. Refusing to accept any distinctions between aesthetics and politics or between the concerns of the artist and those of the mass community, Bullins demands that his audience synthesize abstract perception and concrete experience. Providing a set of terms useful to understanding the development of these concerns in his own work, Bullins defines a constituting dialectic in the black theatrical movement that emerged in the mid-1960’s:This new thrust has two main branches—the dialectic of change and the dialectic of experience. The writers are attempting to answer questions concerning Black survival and future, one group through confronting the Black/white reality of America, the other, by heightening the dreadful white reality of being a modern Black captive and victim.
Essentially, the dialectic of change focuses attention on political problems demanding a specific form of action. The dialectic of experience focuses on a more “realistic” (though Bullins redefines the term to encompass aspects of reality frequently dismissed by programmatic realists) picture of black life in the context in which the problems continue to condition all experience. Reflecting his awareness that by definition each dialectic is in constant tension with the other, Bullins directs his work in the dialectic of change to altering the audience’s actual experience. Similarly, his work in the dialectic of experience, while rarely explicitly didactic, leads inexorably to recognition of the need for change.
Bullins’s work in both dialectics repudiates the tradition of the Western theater, which, he says, “shies away from social, political, psychological or any disturbing (revolutionary) reforms.” Asserting the central importance of non-Western references, Bullins catalogs the “elements that make up the alphabet of the secret language used in Black theater,” among them the blues, dance, African religion, and mysticism, “familial nationalism,” mythscience, ritual-ceremony, and “nigger street styles.” Despite the commitment to an African American continuum evident in the construction and content of his plays, Bullins by no means repudiates all elements of the European American tradition. Even as he criticizes Brechtian epic theater, Bullins employs aspects of Brecht’s dramatic rhetoric, designed to alienate the audience from received modes of perceiving theatrical, and by extension political, events. It is less important to catalog Bullins’s allusions to William Shakespeare, O’Neill, Camus, or Genet than to recognize his use of their devices alongside those of Baraka, Soyinka, and Derek A. Walcott in the service of “Black artistic, political, and cultural consciousness.”
Most of Bullins’s work in the dialectic of change, which he calls “protest writing” when addressed to a European American audience and “Black revolutionary writing” when addressed to an African American audience, takes the form of short satiric or agitpropic plays. Frequently intended for street performance, these plays aim to attract a crowd and communicate an incisive message as rapidly as possibly. Influential in the ritual theater of Baraka and in Bullins’s own “Black Revolutionary Commercials,” this strategy developed out of association with the black nationalist movement in cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Newark. Reflecting the need to avoid unplanned confrontations with police, the performances described in Bullins’s influential “Short Statement on Street Theater” concentrate on establishing contact with groups unlikely to enter a theater, especially black working people and individuals living on the margins of society—gang members, junkies, prostitutes, and street people. Recognizing the impact of the media on American consciousness, Bullins frequently parodies media techniques, satirizing political advertising in “The American Flag Ritual” and “selling” positive black revolutionary images in “A Street Play.” Somewhat longer though equally direct, “Death List,” which can be performed by a troupe moving through the neighborhood streets, alerts the community to “enemies of the Black People,” from Vernon Jordan to Whitney Young. Considered out of their performance context, many of these pieces seem simplistic or didactic, but their real intent is to realize Bullins’s desire that “each individual in the crowd should have his sense of reality confronted, his consciousness assaulted.” Because the “accidental” street audience comes into contact with the play while in its “normal” frame of mind, Bullins creates deliberately hyperbolic images to dislocate that mind-set in a very short period of time.
When writing revolutionary plays for performance in traditional theaters, Bullins tempers his rhetoric considerably. To be sure, Dialect Determinism, a warning against trivializing the revolutionary impulse of Malcolm X, and The Gentleman Caller, a satiric attack on master-slave mentality of black-white economic interaction, both resemble the street plays in their insistence on revolutionary change. Dialect Determinism climaxes with the killing of a black “enemy,” and The Gentleman Caller ends with a formulaic call for the rise of the foretold “Black nation that will survive, conquer and rule.” The difference between these plays and the street theater lies not in message but in Bullins’s way of involving the audience. Recognizing the different needs of an audience willing to seek out his work in the theater but frequently educated by the dominant culture, Bullins involves it in the analytic process leading to what seem, from a black nationalist perspective, relatively unambiguous political perceptions. Rather than asserting the messages at the start of the plays, therefore, he developed a satiric setting before stripping away the masks and distortions imposed by the audience’s normal frame of reference on its recognition of his revolutionary message.
Along with Baraka, Marvin X, Adrienne Kennedy, and others, Bullins helped make the dialectic of change an important cultural force at the height of the Black Nationalist movement, but his most substantial achievements involve the dialectic of experience. Ranging from his impressionistic gallery plays and politically resonant problem play to the intricately interconnected Twentieth Century Cycle, Bullins’s work in this dialectic reveals a profound skepticism regarding revolutionary ideals that have not been tested against the actual contradictions of African American experience.
Street Sounds, parts of which were later incorporated into House Party, represents Bullins’s adaptation of the gallery approach pioneered by poets such as Robert Browning, Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology, 1915), Melvin B. Tolson (Harlem Gallery, 1969), Gwendolyn Brooks (A Street in Bronzeville, 1945), and Langston Hughes (Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951). By montaging a series of thirty-to ninety-second monologues, Bullins suggests the tensions...
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