Ed Bullins Bullins, Ed (Vol. 5) - Essay

Bullins, Ed (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bullins, Ed 1935–

Bullins, a vital force in the Black Arts movement, is an award-winning Black American playwright, poet, editor, and short story writer. His realistic dramas of the ghetto, immensely relevant for Black audiences, affect profoundly non-Blacks as well. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Bullins has never paid much attention to the niceties of formal structure, choosing instead to concentrate on black life as it very likely really is—a continuing succession of encounters and dialogues, major events and non-events, small joys and ever-present sorrows….

The Duplex is virtually shapeless; it does not really end, merely stops, its central situation unresolved. It is a mixture of styles, from farce to tragedy, a play that works within its own definition of theatre, (and mine), within its own definition of life. It reveals characters and situations that are, for the most part, alien to the white experience. Bullins makes you aware of why blacks have only infrequently attended white theatre. His plays grow out of black life and are written for blacks. The white member of the audience is in a sense almost an interloper, looking in on a culture that has a distinctly different texture. (pp. 50-1)

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1972), May, 1972.

Bullins' plays can generally be divided into two categories: satire and serious. But the line that divides them is sometimes very thin. Plays such as The Electronic Nigger and Pig Pen are obviously satire. Electronic Nigger is a scathing condemnation of the would-be black intellectual, and Pig Pen is a laughing look at the world of so-called "revolutionary" integration (about eight black men and one white women). This kind of satire is very explicit and the playwright's position is very clear on these subjects.

The serious plays, however, like The Duplex, Clara's Ole Man, and … The Fabulous Miss Marie … do not lend themselves to easy interpretations. The Duplex ends, for example, with the older woman, the landlady, going back downstairs in resignation to get her head-whipping from her man because of what she's done. And nobody moves to help her because supposedly anything her man does is within his right. But, we ask, will that help ease her loneliness? Will that prevent her from seeking out some other young man when things come down on her too hard again? Bullins doesn't say. (p. 52)

Lisbeth Gant, in The Drama Review (© 1972 by The Drama Review; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), December, 1972.

Ed Bullins' House Party is [a] disappointment … from a highly talented young writer. It's subtitled 'A Soulful Happening' and on that you'll get no argument from me. What it isn't is much of a play.

We're in 'Black America, in the nostalgic past and now' and nine actors, playing many more than nine roles, have gotten together for some drinks and dancing. One by one, they engage in a series of soliloquies, bridged by musical numbers. The programme labels them 'Woman Poet', 'Loved One', 'Fun Lovin', 'Confused and Lavy', 'Harlem Mother', 'Harlem Politician', 'Black Writer', 'West Indian Revolutionary' and the like. Each has his story to tell, his opinions to voice. But they are abstractions, not people, and only rarely, and then all too briefly, is it suggested that what we're listening to is not 'Black Writer', but Ed Bullins, damn good black writer.

House Party has neither the muscle nor the humour, the pulse nor the pain, of Bullins at his best. It is content with lines like 'No future unless we make it/No hope unless we have it,' which, valid enough in themselves, say nothing that he and others have not said before with more power and passion. A writer as good as Bullins really shouldn't settle for a play as inconsequential as this. (p. 57)

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1974), January, 1974.

Ed Bullins has often been accused of being negative, of fostering negative images of Black people. His characters are men and women who don't make it, who drift through life using and abusing each other. The unerring honesty of his realistic style makes it impossible for the ugliness of their activities to be obscured or for the viewer to be comfortable. The final act of an Ed Bullins play always takes place after the fact, after the play is over and the audience has separated into individuals who must deal with their collective fate. It is over only when we have dealt with ourselves and the characters and found the distasteful elements in both. Far from being negative, Ed Bullins is concerned with those suicidal practices that render the Black man impotent; that prevent us from reaching the goals so often spoken of in the revolutionary rhetoric of the time. His concentration is on the community as it is, as he sees it now. The dilemma here, however, is that many folks assume that the playwright's stageworld represents a total view of the Black community, when he is, in truth, talking about those who are sick with very specific kinds of illnesses and pretensions. The totality of the viewpoint is relative to the totality of the social phenomena discussed and described.

The Bullins theater is the theater of confrontation. We are forced to look at ourselves and that part of our specific community which troubles us in our quiet moments. [His message is] that we must deal with our own streets, with the choices we continue to make and the dreams we trade for truth. The sounds we hear and the movements we see on the stage disturb us because they are rooted in truth…. Again, the playwright is caught between the need for new images and the necessity for illuminating the present psychosis.

The duality of Ed Bullins continues even into his craft. To many, he is a pioneer creating new forms for Black expression. Others view his plays as structureless adventures in tasteless dialogue. It is said that "nothing ever happens in a Bullins play." The old bugaboo about plot structure and all of the other characteristics of conventional Western Drama constantly rears its ugly head. Ed, however, continues to turn out pieces which move audiences. His eclecticism defies any definition except his own. Like a jazz musician, he constantly changes and molds his meter. The seemingly straight-down-the-line realism is constantly interrupted with forays into passionate prose and poetry…. We may leave the characters in pretty much the same place we found them, but something has definitely been going on. Action has taken place. The work of Ed Bullins is stamped with the feeling of immediacy. It is as if the piece were being created while it is being performed and is subject to the changing moods and urges of its performers. Reading the script, however, tells us the dynamic changes are due to the playwright's stage know-how. They are all plotted moves and nuances. Rather than any rules of dramatic unity and structure, it is the knowledge of his people, his audience, and an unerring understanding of what will and will not work on a stage that directs the Bullins craft. (pp. 16-17)

Don Evans, "The Theater of Confrontation: Ed Bullins, Up against the Wall," in Black World (copyright © April, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Don Evans), April, 1974, pp. 16-18.

In his plays, Bullins (a leading playwright of the Drama of Self-celebration) continually portrays [the] Search [for Self-completeness]: Jack and Clara in Clara's Ole Man (1959), Cliff and Lou Dawson in In The Wine Time (1966), Steve and Grace in It Has No Choice (1966), and Steve and Liz in New England Winter (1967). In Duplex, Bullins elects to make the Search the controlling idea. (p. 22)

Marked by a flowing conversational style, Duplex relies on two structural devices to create mood and to transport its unifying idea: (a) unplanned and casual action, and (b) frequently disconnected dialogue. Also, there is very little developed action in the play. (Action "is not here thought of as mere physical activity, but as what the characters do: fight, fall in love, make or evade making decisions, voice their secret thoughts, or harangue either other characters or the audience.")… The search for structure, then, must focus not on the development of action, but on the development of the theme, the recurrence of hopes for Self-completeness. These hopes are gradually exposed as illusions and are later shattered. Bullins' structural pattern is dissatisfaction with reality, flight into fantasy (or envisioned reality), and a return to an adjusted reality.

An earlier theatrical example of this structural style can be found in the Russian playwright Chekhov, whose simplified plot fabric and apparently unsystematic combination of facts and actions caused his plays to be termed "drama of mood." (pp. 23-4)

Bullins' second structural device [is] desultory conversation. The characters frequently do not listen or respond to each other. Each spins his own yarn to others, who are far more interested in spinning their own. (p. 24)

[The] desultory dialogue highlights the casual action and points to the desperation of the Search for Self-completeness. The remarks are charged not only with the particular meaning for the character who is speaking, but with a special meaning that illumines the Search of the others present. Again, we can turn to Chekhov (to The Three Sisters …) to see an extensive use of the desultory conversation device. (p. 25)

Bullins selects and arranges his scenes so that they resemble the Search itself: looking, finding, testing, detesting, re-searching. Each character's Search "is examined at length," as [John] Kerr points out. His complaint that the characters are "independent entities," that they "spin off into space without having made vital connection" is the very strength of the play, is in fact the successful meshing of form and content. (pp. 25-6)

Samuel A. Hay, "Structural Elements in Ed Bullins' Plays," in Black World (copyright © April, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Samuel A. Hay), April, 1974, pp. 20-6.

"The Taking of Miss Janie," a good new play by Ed Bullins,… can be most briefly described as a fugue, whose themes are the feelings and experiences of a number of young people during the nineteen-sixties…. As was true of Mr. Bullins' "The Fabulous Miss Marie," each of the leading characters, with a spotlight on him, talks at one time or another directly to the audience about what is on his mind and in his heart and, occasionally, what lies in store for him…. Mr. Bullins has rarely been wittier or, for that matter, more understanding and vigorous. "The Taking of Miss Janie" is, according to a program note, a sequel to "The Pig Pen," his most puzzling play. This one may be his most complex, but it is clear. (pp. 61-2)

Edith Oliver, "Fugue for Three Roommates," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 24, 1975, pp. 61-2.

The Taking of Miss Janie … is a forcefully telling play. It begins with a "flash" of Janie, a white woman who weeps in desperate complaint that she has been raped by Monty, a black man whom we see with her. By the end of the play we have learned that she and Monty met in a poetry class at CCNY where she was struck by his literary talent. Her connection with him is also prompted by the fascination black people arouse in her. She withholds herself from him sexually in an effort to keep their relationship wholly friendly. Monty's feeling for her is perhaps more than desire; there is also rage at her callowness and ignorance of the black world she has entered and her resolve to keep herself chaste with him. The two sentiments mount to physical violence which she, still unenlightened by all she has witnessed and gone through with Monty, terms "rape."

Still, this is not the crux of the play. It is a dramatic portrait of those social elements which gave the 1960s their special stamp. The play focuses on the effect of all those external circumstances—the war, the student demonstrations, the resentments as well as the hopes for radical change—as they play upon the consciousness of articulate black people in particular…. But the play's meaning is broader than its specific ethnic background.

What we see is a people—black, white, Jew and gentile—hung up and driven nearly mad by the fearful contradictions between ragged remnants of the American "dream" and the shameful realities of actual existence. There is a strong though fitful will to overcome the resultant disaster but no one is honest, clearheaded, steadfast, informed and disciplined enough to do so…. Ploys of escape escape nothing, drugs obliterate reality and lead to nonbeing, diverse brands of racism serve for slogans. Rabid affirmations and hysterical protests eventuate in frustration rather than relief. Nearly everyone is lost in a miserable flow of turbid emotion with no beneficent outlet. All are in the dark and no one is "saved"—not even those who have settled into unquiet compromise or stagnant surrender.

The play, despite its disturbing revelations, is neither mournful in tone nor tendentiously raucous. Vigorously humorous, it does not whine; it growls with a savage grin. Without pleading any special cause, it has sinew and muscle. Bold in its courageous objectivity, it is by no means depressing.

The picture is overcrowded or may only seem so because of the numerous characters and places…. At moments it is difficult to distinguish one person from another, but that in part is due to the fact that all are equally, though differently, "in trouble." The audience laughs, shouts and stamps in recognition of the types and situations depicted. It is itself the material of what it beholds and is puzzled on that account. It, too, does not know. It finds it impossible "to take sides" and it constantly veers in its sympathies because Bullins does not seek to direct it to any firm conclusion. He is demonstrating, not preaching. His voice here, for all its explosive resonance, is essentially poetic. (p. 414)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 5, 1975.

Ed Bullins's The Taking of Miss Janie … is a modest but steadily engaging play about a black college student's encounter with a liberal white girl who thoughtlessly seeks to have a platonic relationship with him.

The greatest virtue of the play, which is set in the Sixties, is the way it captures the humor that attended campus miscegenation then…. As for the final "rape" of Miss Janie, it is also comic, as Bullins makes us see that the idea of rape is essential both to the pride of the black student and to the pleasure of his none-too-chaste concubine. (p. 52)

Henry Hewes, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 17, 1975.

[The Taking of Miss Janie] begins with a black man raping a white woman. Strangely enough, it is less a brutal physical act than the saddest of requiems. The play ends with the figures of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on a rear stage scrim being spattered with gobs of blood. Thus the rape is, to some degree, an image of the anarchic violence of the '60s.

It is also a double requiem for the defeated hopes of the '60s. As a black girl who has become a lesbian puts it: "We all failed … and by failing ourselves we failed in the test of the times. We had so much going for us … so much potential…. Do you realize it, man? We were the youth of our times…. And we blew it. Blew it completely. Look where it all ended…. We just turned out lookin' like a bunch of punks and freaks."

Yet it would be quite wrong to think of The Taking of Miss Janie as a dirge…. Bullins often uses a party as the central structure of his plays, and he does it again here. Even when it is slightly sick, a Bullins party jives. The people talk a vivid street idiom with the fluent opulence of jazz. Their moods dance. They make hot, sly, funny, drunken, sexy scenes together that have the cumulative impact of a seduction. Then they fall apart in revealing stop-motion monologues as if a petal were trying to be a flower….

[The] white heroine Janie is the most pathetic of all. Bullins has drawn a masterly portrait of a befuddled, innocent, college-educated liberal.

T. E. Kalem, "Requiem for the '60s," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 19, 1975, p. 80.

Ed Bullins's [The Taking of Miss Janie] is a cartoon allegory, which is a rare genre indeed—at least I hope so. It tries to sum up race relations in our troubled sixties in terms of assorted black and Jewish types, and the allegorical WASP, Miss Janie, who, after ten years of equivocal friendship, is raped by the black hero. Bullins has caught some archetypes quite cleverly, has brought off a few funny routines and pungent lines, and has almost managed not to weight the scales in favor of the black characters. All of this is fine, but what is lacking is a play. The allegory is too simplistic; the attempt to deepen the work by allowing each character a lengthy monologue merely underscores how much has been left undramatized, i.e., undigested fiction rather than theater; and the accumulation of turbulent details in all too many centrifugal destinies only pries an already uncohering play farther apart….

If Bullins thinks that he has written a fairly droll pastiche, good and well; but I have the uneasy feeling he may think of it as serious and searching, too. Alas, if it is not pure pastiche, it is pure pasteboard. (p. 93)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 19, 1975.