Intensely protective concerning the details of his private life, Ed Bullins has nevertheless been a highly visible force in the development of African American theater since the mid-1960’s. Reared primarily by his civil-servant mother in North Philadelphia, Bullins attended a predominantly white grade school before transferring to an inner-city junior high, where he became involved with the street gang called the Jet Cobras. Like his semiautobiographical character Steve Benson (The Reluctant Rapist, In New England Winter, The Duplex), Bullins suffered a near-fatal knife wound, in the area of his heart, in a street fight. After dropping out of high school, he served in the United States Navy from 1952 to 1955. In 1958, he moved to California, where he passed his high school graduation equivalency examination and attended Los Angeles City College from 1961 to 1963.
Bullins’s 1963 move to San Francisco signaled the start of his emergence as an influential figure in African American literary culture. The first national publication of his essays in 1963 initiated a period of tremendous creativity extending into the mid-1970’s. Actively committed to black nationalist politics by 1965, he began working with community theater organizations such as Black Arts/West, the Black Student Union at San Francisco State College, and Black House of San Francisco, which he founded along with playwright Marvin X. The first major production of Bullins’s drama, a program including How Do You Do?, Dialect Determinism, and Clara’s Ole Man, premiered at the Firehouse Repertory Theater in San Francisco on August 5, 1965. At about the same time, Bullins assumed the position of minister of culture with the Black Panther Party, then emerging as a major force in national politics. Breaking with the Panthers in 1967, reportedly in disagreement with Eldridge Cleaver’s decision to accept alliances with white radical groups, Bullins moved to Harlem at the urging of Robert MacBeth, director of the New Lafayette Theater.
Bullins’s first New York production, The Electronic Nigger, ran for ninety-six performances following its February 21, 1968, debut at the American Place Theatre, where it was moved after the original New Lafayette burned down. Combined with his editorship of the controversial Summer, 1968, “Black Theatre” issue of The Drama Review, the success of The Electronic Nigger consolidated Bullins’s position alongside Baraka as a major presence within and outside the African American theatrical community. Between 1968 and 1976, Bullins’s plays received an average of three major New York productions per year at theaters, including the New Lafayette (where Bullins was playwright-in-residence up to its 1973 closing), the American Place Theatre, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement House, Lincoln Center, and the La Mama Experimental Theater.
Bullins wrote A Sunday Afternoon with Marshall Borden and “a pseudo-satiric monster horror play, a take-off on B-movies,” called Dr. Geechie and the Blood Junkies, which he read at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York in the summer of 1989. The La Mama theater staged I Think It’s Going to Turn Out Fine, based on the Tina Turner story, in 1990, and American Griot (coauthored with Idris Ackamoor, who also acted in the play) in 1991. Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam, a one-act play on the aftermath of the black revolution, premiered at the Ensemble Studio Theater in 1991.
Bullins has also taught American humanities, black theater, and play making at Contra Costa College, in San Pablo, California. He settled in Emeryville, near Oakland, and started a theater there called the BMT Theatre (Bullins Memorial Theatre, named after his son, who died in an automobile accident).
He continued his formal education at Antioch University/San Francisco, where he received his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies (English and playwriting) in 1989. After he completed his...
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