Ed Bullins Bullins, Ed (Vol. 7) - Essay

Bullins, Ed (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bullins, Ed 1935–

Bullins, a Black American playwright, essayist, editor, poet, and short story writer, is best known for his realistic, topical plays. Bullins is concerned with sensory impressions as well as dialogue and the impact of his drama results from his careful staging and his effective use of music, movement, and lighting. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

There is nothing embarrassingly bad or unendurable about [The Duplex]—with the possible exception of some of the old woman's maunderings; but neither its insight nor its language, neither its dramaturgy nor its perspective, is in any sustained way compelling. Its laughter is routine, and its poignancies, with one or two exceptions, are perfunctory. Yet there is a smooth functionalism about its better parts…. The chief virtue of Bullins' work is that black audiences can doubtless identify themselves with it wholeheartedly—as the black part of the opening-night audience noisily did—but here hides a danger. Recognition of yourself up there on the boards is not the end-all of art, at best the beginning. It is understandably satisfying for the audience of an emergent theater to see itself raised to the heights of the stage, with the social and cultural importance this implies. But for the work to become art, it must take the audience beyond mere self-recognition, identification with mirror images. It must do, say, envision things that in some profound sense have never been done, said, envisioned before, and this The Duplex, in terms other than its negritude, fails to do. It is all basic minimums. If dramaturgy were cobblery, you might say that The Duplex does not rise above the sole—though it does undeniably have plenty of sole. (pp. 377-78)

It is refreshing to see a black play not take white-baiting for its principal theme or tone, but what Bullins has substituted lacks even the impact of some of his earlier agit-prop offerings. (p. 378)

John Simon, a review originally written in Winter, 1971–72, in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater 1963–1973 (copyright © 1965, 1971, 1972 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1975.

"House Party"… has all the style, feeling, and wit of [Mr. Bullins'] "The Fabulous Miss Marie." Even more free-form in performance than that play—for there is no plot—it is described as "A Soulful Happening." (pp. 89-90)

[Every] aspect of black life—bleak and joyous, sexual, social, and private—appears to have been covered in one way or another. Mr. Bullins' writing has never been stronger; his irony, his understanding, his ability to catch a whole life in a single speech or song lyric, and his mocking, parodic humor have never been more apparent. (p. 91)

Edith Oliver, "A Marvellous Party," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 5, 1973, pp. 89-91.

Ed Bullins is one of the most talented of contemporary black playwrights. In fact he is one of the few genuine talents among a group of playwrights—the blacks—who are even more flagrantly pampered by critics than are younger American playwrights in general. I've had an eye out for Bullins ever since I had the chance, eight years ago, to read the manuscript of his early play Goin A Buffalo. The work of his that I've seen since then has affected me much like that first play: ragged but raging; raging but ragged; a strong personal voice that often lapses into clichés of dialogue and construction. A grimmer way of saying this is that his talent is now no less but his art is no greater. He has neither dwindled nor significantly developed. His latest play The Taking of Miss Janie is a case in point—indeed, it's more of a case in point than a play.

The idea is theatrically attractive: a view of the American '60s built on the relationship between two college students, black man and white woman, including the woman's conscious wish to be a friend and her less conscious wish to be taken; the man's perception of this; his loathing of it combined with his liking of her, and his ultimate revenge on both of them, on the world, by succumbing to her wish to be raped by him. (I'm not assuming, any more than Bullins is, that all women are just dying to be raped: I'm talking about some psychosexual myths in a specific time, place, situation…. Bullins wants to examine the texture and movement of the '60s at a focal point of the decade's dynamics: socially and politically radical college students. We see examples of black nationalism, black intellectualism, the growth of women's lib, drug culture, rock culture, and so on.

But there are two troubles, quickly apparent: 1) all we are getting is examples, not drama; 2) Bullins has absolutely no ideas on his subject, he can only present bits of it as evidence. As the play progresses, he seems to become aware of this, to become frustrated and panicky; so he "opens up" the play, makes it become conscious of itself as play, makes the characters address the audience in quasi-historical tone with references to the future. But the device doesn't work: it stands shivering as a naked attempt to give depth to a play that hasn't really reached it. Like other Bullins work, the trouble with Miss Janie is that Bullins never decided, in artistic terms, why he wanted to write it and what he was going to do about it. Some dramatists, even such an unlikely one as Shaw, have told us that they start with characters and let the characters "write" the play. If true, which I beg leave to doubt somewhat, the difference in Bullins is that his characters aren't equally resourceful.

Stanley Kauffmann, "'The Taking of Miss Janie'" (originally published in The New Republic, June 7, 1975), in his Persons of the Drama (copyright © 1975 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1976, pp. 251-52.

Though far from an impeccable craftsman like Alice Walker, Bullins is similarly impressive in the range of his early writings. His collection [The Hungered One] includes brief commentaries spoken or narrated by a single voice, such as "Moonwriter"; essentially traditional naturalistic stories like "DANDY or Astride the Funky Finger of Lust"; the grotesque title piece with its unnamed narrator's terrible encounter with a monstrous symbolic bird; surreal sketches like "The Saviour" or "The Reluctant Voyage" that are almost Kafka-esque in their mingling of realism and fantasy; familiar but effective stories of racial violence like "Travel from Home"; and some very good single-episode narratives like "The Drive." In spite of their uneven quality, the overall effect of the collection is impressive. Though his subject matter had become traditional by the seventies, Bullins is his own man and speaks with his own voice. And a strong, powerful voice it is, and one that will continue to be heard. (p. 239)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.

Bullins's play [The Taking of Miss Janie] is set in the Sixties, when, Bullins feels, "rape was symbolic of race relations" and of the "separation of blacks from white European culture." His main character, Monty, appears to be a self-absorbed stud who makes love to whatever female happens to be within his reach. In Bullins's eyes, however, Monty represents the brave young buck rebelling against 400 years of racial oppression, "expressing his own imperative to reach self-determination."

By elevating rape into an act of supreme liberation from white oppression, Bullins reinforces the notion that black men covet white women so much, either as sexual ideals preferable to black women, or as symbols of class and power, that they will stop at nothing to possess them. It's a notion, based on a sense of black inferiority, that black leaders have tried to counteract for years, and to see it used as the heart of Mr. Bullins's play gives one pause.

If Bullins had stressed Monty's willingness to use force to get what he wants, Monty might have been a more accurate portrait of modern black pride and determination. Instead, Bullins emphasizes the importance of the prize itself, not the means his hero must use to get it.

That Bullins's play is politically retrograde is not really surprising, though. While he and Baraka were in the vanguard of militant black playwrights during the Sixties, in the past few years Bullins has become less strident and more cynical about black writing and black political consciousness. (p. 52)

Barbara Mackay, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 12, 1975.

"The Mystery of Phillis Wheatley" is about how a black slave girl, "born on the shores of Senegal, full of poetry and mystery, became a gentle-born English poet, wanting to whitewash her soul." It is a mystery which Ed Bullins, in this play for children, never solves….

The problem with Wheatley, for a militant playwright like Bullins, is that she sold out. Given her freedom, she went to London, not Senegal. Bullins asserts in his title that such a sell-out is a mystery (his vision of Africa is oozingly sentimental: rhythm and yum-yum trees), and then assures us that Africa was, despite appearances, throbbing in her soul. Unsure whether Wheatley was a good black for making the best of it, or a "good" black for not harking back to her heritage, Bullins straddles, not unlike many black Americans today, who can not decide whether their loyalties belong to their blackness or America, when those conflict.

The play, while full of rant and cliches (a common crime against children), is sparely and effectively realized…. The play … would have [been] better, I think, if Bullins had made up his mind what he thought about Wheatley or himself, as an artist with loyalties both to blackness and to the enslaver.

Carll Tucker, "She Went to London, Not Senegal," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), February 2, 1976, p. 110.