Ed Bullins Bullins, Ed - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Ed Bullins 1935-

(Also wrote under pseudonym Kingsley B. Bass, Jr.)

As the author of more than thirty plays, Bullins is regarded as one of the most significant playwrights to emerge from the Black Power Movement. His works are acclaimed for their realistic, sometimes controversial depiction of African American ghetto life. From 1967 to 1973 Bullins was the Playwright-in-Residence at Harlem's New Lafayette Theater, and it was during this period that Bullins produced some of his most popular plays, including Goin' a Buffalo, In the Wine Time, The Duplex, Clara's Ole Man, and In New England Winter.


Bullins was born in 1935 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he grew up on the rough streets of North Philadelphia. In 1952 he dropped out of school and joined the Navy. After three years of world travel, Bullins returned to Philadelphia. He moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and enrolled in Los Angeles City College. He continued his education at San Francisco State University, and after attending a production of The Dutchman and The Slave by the black radical Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Bullins realized that he would pursue a career in the theater. Influenced by Baraka's works and his call for black identity, he joined The Black Panthers and served as cultural director of a African American artists consortium called Black House. He eventually broke with the Black Panthers and when the director of the New Lafayette Theatre, Robert Macbeth, invited Bullins to stage In the Wine Time there, Bullins accepted. He moved to New York in 1967 and began his long association with the artists at the New Lafayette.


Bullins's work is concerned with the candid depiction of the African American experience. To this end, Bullins has created a body of work which falls into two categories: those of the "Twentieth-Century Cycle," or cycle plays, and non-cycle plays. Among the latter are Goin' a Buffalo, Clara's Ole Man, The Pig Pen, and The Taking of Miss Janie. In order to create his theater of black experience, Bullins has striven to attain a recognizable thematic and character progression throughout these plays. In this way, the audience feels an even greater affinity and connection with Bullins's people. In The Pig Pen and its sequel The Taking of Miss Janie, Bullins introduces and reintroduces characters such as Len, a Black Nationalist, and Sharon, his white friend whom he eventually marries. With the recurrence of characters comes the recurrence of themes; miscegenation, white/black relations and their viability, and the schism within the Black Power Movement in general. This technique also allows Bullins the opportunity to makehis characters current with the changing times.


Although initial critical reaction to Bullins's work was generally favorable, some viewers complained that his early plays were too violent and offered an unflattering picture of African American life. Several black critics rallied to defend Bullins and attacked white critics for using "white" notions of good drama to evaluate black art. Today, Bullins is recognized as one of the leading African American playwrights in America. Commentators agree that his plays, devoid of political or revolutionary rhetoric, force viewers to examine themselves and the conditions surrounding them.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Clara's Ole Man 1965

Dialect Determinism (or The Rally) 1965

How Do You Do? 1965

The Game of Adam and Eve [with Shirley Tarbell] 1966

It Has No Choice 1966

A Minor Scene 1966

The Theme is Blackness 1966

The Corner 1968

The Electronic Nigger and Others [includes Clara's Ole Man and A Son, Come Home] 1968

Goin' a Buffalo: A Tragifantasy 1968

In the Wine Time 1968

The Gentleman Caller 1969

The Man Who Dug Fish 1969

*We Righteous Bombers [as Kingsley Bass, Jr.] 1969

The Devil Catchers 1970

The Duplex: A Black Love Fable in Four Movements 1970

The Fabulous Miss Marie 1970

Four Dynamite Plays: It Bees Dot Way, Death List, The Pig Pen, Night of the Beast 1970

The Helper 1970

A Ritual to Raise the Dead and Foretell the Future 1970

Street Sounds 1970

In New England Winter 1971

Next Time 1972

The Psychic Pretenders (A Black Magic Show) 1972

You Gonna Let Me Take You Out Tonight, Baby? 1972

House Party, A Soul Happening [music by Pat Patrick] 1973

The Taking of Miss Janie 1975

Home Boy [music by Aaron Bell] 1976

I Am Lucy Terry 1976

Jo Anne!!! 1976

The Mystery of Phillis Wheatley 1976

DADDY! 1977

Sepia Star, or Chocolate Comes to the Cotton Club [music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden] 1977

Storyville [music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden] 1977

C'mon Back to Heavenly House 1978

Michael 1978

Leavings 1980

Steve and Velma 1980

Bullins Does Bullins 1988

American Griot 1990

I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine [with Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones] 1990

Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam 1991

Raining Down Stars: Sepia Stories of the Dark Diaspora [with Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones] 1992


Drama Review [editor] (anthology) 1968

New Plays from the Black Theatre [editor and contributor] (anthology) 1969

The Hungered One: Early Writings (short stories) 1971

To Raise the Dead and Foretell the Future (poetry) 1971

The Ritual Masters (screenplay) 1972

The Reluctant Rapist (novel) 1973

The New Lafayette Theatre Presents: Plays with Aesthetic Comments by Six Black Playwrights [editor] (anthology) 1974

*This work is attributed to Bullins, although he publicly denies having written it.

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

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 TheaterBlack 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...

(The entire section is 3460 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Lance Jeffers (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Bullins, Baraka, and Elder: The Dawn of Grandeur in Black Drama," in CLA Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, September, 1972, pp. 32-48.

[Jeffers is an American poet, short story writer, and critic. In the following essay, he analyzes Bullins's honest and unsentimental depiction of the black working class in Clara's Ole Man and In the Wine Time.]

There are hellish depths and godly heights in the black experience that await the black artist as he charts our voyage into the future. Coltrane and Bird and Gene Ammons and Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges confidently exploit these heights, these depths. In black...

(The entire section is 17495 words.)

The Taking Of Miss Janie

(Drama Criticism)


Edith Oliver (review date 24 March 1975)

SOURCE: "Fugue for Three Roommates," in The New Yorker, Vol. LI, No. 5, March 24, 1975, pp. 61-3.

[Below, Oliver offers a positive assessment of The Taking of Miss Janie, maintaining that "Mr. Bullins has rarely been wittier or, for that matter, more understanding and vigorous. "]

The Taking of Miss Janie, a good new play by Ed Bullins, at the Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theatre (on Grand Street), can be most briefly described as a fugue, whose themes are the feelings and experiences of a number of young people during the...

(The entire section is 6645 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Bullins, Ed. "Playwright's Journal 1975." Confrontation, Nos. 33-34 (Fall-Winter 1986-1987): 269-73.

Discusses the critical reception of The Taking of Miss Janie, and his impressions upon winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for that play.

Gussow, Mel. "Bullins, the Artist and the Activist, Speaks." The New York Times (22 September 1971): 54.

Offers the playwright's views on critics, the importance of theater to the black community, and playwriting as an "exact craft."

Jackmon, Marvin X. "An Interview with Ed Bullins: Black Theater." The Negro Digest XVIII, No. 6...

(The entire section is 545 words.)