Biography

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Ed Bullins is one of the outstanding black dramatists in the United States. He was born in 1935 in a black ghetto in Philadelphia. As a young child, he was an excellent student at a white grade school, but after his transfer to an inner-city junior high school, he joined a gang and became a “street nigger,” as he termed it. He dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Navy in 1952, where he remained for three years. In 1958, he moved to California and, after earning a general equivalency diploma, went to Los Angeles City College part time in 1961. His move to San Francisco a few years later was the catalyst for both his black activist period and his playwriting, which were deeply connected.{$S[A]Bass, Kingsley B., Jr.;Bullins, Ed}

Between 1965 and 1967, when Bullins left San Francisco, he wrote a dozen short plays, which fell into two major categories, black revolutionary plays and plays of black contemporary life. Dialect Determinism: Or, The Rally is an example of the former in its emphasis on raising the black consciousness. Clara’s Ole Man is a naturalistic slice of ghetto life. In all these plays, Bullins generates the conflict through depicting blacks who have accepted the white view of success and denied their origins and culture in the process.

During these years, Bullins and Malcolm X founded Black House, a cultural and political institution associated with the Black Panther Party. Bullins left the party in 1967, after Eldridge Cleaver had decided to join with white radicals. In 1968, after Bullins was brought to New York as playwright-in-residence at the New Lafayette Theater, a trio of his plays, including The Electronic Nigger and Clara’s Ole Man, was produced. He was awarded the Vernon Rice Award, which resulted in his selection as guest editor of a black theater issue of Drama Review in the summer of 1968.

An important aspect of Bullins’s career at the New Lafayette was his work on a proposed group of twenty plays, which he called the Twentieth Century Cycle. The plays were to depict the lives of several young men growing up on a ghetto street in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He produced the first play, In the Wine Time, in 1968; it features a favorite Bullins device, also found in Clara’s Ole Man: an extended bout of wine-drinking ending in verbal and physical violence. The New Lafayette continued to produce Bullins’s plays until it closed for lack of funds in 1973.

Perhaps one of Bullins’s greatest critical successes was the 1974-1975 production of The Taking of Miss Janie, which received both the Obie Award and the Drama Critics Circle Award for the Best American Play. It is a long one-act play depicting a past and a possible repeat rape of a white woman by a black man. Using a prologue, epilogue, and flashback, Bullins uses the relationship of those two people as a means of exploring black-white relationships in the United States. The play is powerful, violent, and personal as well as social, and the elements of theatrical experimentation contribute to the overall impact.

In 1976, Bullins saw four new productions of his plays, received a second Guggenheim grant, and began supervising the New York Shakespeare Festival’s playwriting workshop. Three of the new plays deal with historical black women who have taken on mythic qualities: poets Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Terry and prisoner Joanne Little. Home Boy is fifth in the Twentieth Century Cycle and reveals Bullins’s increasing preoccupation with music.

In Bullins’s later work, he focuses less on black-white issues and more...

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on the everyday situations of black life. InDaddy, the sixth play of the cycle, the musician-father figure tries to come to some understanding with the wife and children he left behind years earlier. He comes to realize that manhood is defined through the family and not through sexual conquests, a theme that runs through many of Bullins’s plays. After 1977, new plays by Bullins appeared less frequently on New York stages.

Bullins’s Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam, produced in 1991, extends his vision into an imaginary future to depict the former Black Panther leader down and out in the wake of a black revolution. In Boy X Man (the “X” means “times,” as in an equation), produced in 1995, Bullins constructs a memory play in which a young man’s return to attend his mother’s funeral prompts him to remember his boyhood with his mother and her “friend,” who raised him as a son.

From his revolutionary origins, Ed Bullins matured into a black dramatist of power and vision who explores the inner as well as the outer forces that keep black people in the United States from realizing their potential and their freedom. He is regarded as an exceptional craftsman who creates tough, vivid characters and who has an excellent ear for the language of the ghetto. He has an understanding and acceptance of these characters, many of whom are based on biographical elements in his life. Bullins is prolific and his work uneven, yet at his best, in such plays as Clara’s Ole Man and The Taking of Miss Janie, he is a writer of penetrating and unflinching honesty.

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