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Broadway Black History Fact

Ed Bullins: A Pioneer of the Black Arts Movement

Ed Bullins (Edward Bullins, Kingsley B. Bass, Jr.) is a revolutionary of words and actions. He cemented his place in the history of American theater through a series of timely pieces that rightfully reflect the social and political temperament of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. As a renowned playwright, Bullins provided prolific accounts of the Black experience during those eras and beyond— a unique and complex narrative that resonates with audiences from the Black Arts Movement of the past to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

In 1958, he moved from his Philadelphia, P.A. hometown to California where he studied at Los Angeles City College and San Francisco State College. While there, he encountered his first career critics. One professor told him that he would never make it as a writer and another all but ousted him from the Contemporary Literature Club because of the color of his skin. Nevertheless, he was determined to become a writer.

San Francisco became the birthing place for Bullins the playwright. In 1965 Robert Hartman of the San Francisco Drama Circle produced Bullins’ one-act plays How Do You Do?, Dialect Determinism and Clara’s Ole Man at the Firehouse Repertory Theater.

Black Arts/West was also founded in 1965 by revolutionary and poet Marvin X along with Ed Bullins, Ethna Wyatt, Duncan Barber, Hillary Broadous, and Carl Brossiere. Black Arts/West was a conglomerate of black artists in the Black Arts Movement of the 1950s on the west coast. Members of Black Arts/West convinced Eldridge Cleaver to convert a large Victorian house into what Samuel Hays, author of Ed Bullins: A Literary Biography, refers to as the “birthing place of revolutionary thought and activities in Northern California.”

Marvin X facilitated the connection between Cleaver and Black Panther Party Leaders and, together, the group opened Black House at 1711 Broderick Street. Black House served dual functions, as an outlet for Black revolutionary artists and the headquarters of the party. Bullins became the party’s Minister of Culture but by late 1966 ideological differences between party leader Huey Newton and members of Black Arts/West polarized Black House. Bullins left the party and joined Robert Macbeth at the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem in 1967.

While Bullins was delving into the world of African American theater on the west coast, Macbeth— a product of Charleston, S.C., embarked a parallel journey on the east. He was inspired by the beat of the South. The sit-in movement, bus integration rides and protests awakened Macbeth the artist. As an actor, he understudied the likes of James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett and Billy Dee Williams but the heart breaking images of four little black girls, murdered in a fiery Birmingham church on a Sunday morning motivated him to want to do more. Macbeth set out for meaningful contribution in the 1960s and as he began developing his own theater, a colleague sent him Goin’ a Buffalo written by Bullins. He instantly knew that Bullins was the writer he was in search of.  

“I need something Ray Charles-Mahalia Jackson-Miles Davis-Aretha Franklin-Nina Simone-Curtis Mayfield-Jimi Hendrix-John Coltrane, arranged by Duke Ellington or Sun Ra. I was searching for a creative inspiration. I might not be able to describe it clearly, but I knew I would feel it when I read it,” Macbeth recalled in his commentary Bullins and Me a Remembrance of Past Times.

Macbeth contacted Bullins who then sent him In The Wine Time— the first of his Twentieth Century Cycle. Soon Bullins was contracted and settling into the New York scene with Macbeth and the New Lafayette Theater. Bullins served as playwright-in-residence until 1972 and in 1968 he received the Drama Desk-Vernon Rice Award for The Electronic Nigger. During this time he founded and edited Black Theatre Magazine and later formed the Surviving Theatre in the Bronx.

To understand the importance of Bullins in the Black Arts Movement you have to acknowledge the severity of the times. Macbeth explains working with actors and planning for the New Lafayette Theater on the same day, merely 20 blocks away, when Malcolm X was murdered. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the Vietnam War claimed hundreds of young American lives each week. Artists of the movement took on the responsibility of transcribing the Black narrative, investigating and reflecting on aspects of the revolution and informing the masses. While Marvin Gaye wrote What’s Going On, Bullins produced We Righteous Bombers under the name Kinsgley B. Bass, Jr.

His recognition grew in the 1970s. The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971) and In New England Winter (1971) received Obie Awards and The Taking of Miss Janie (1975) won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Bullins assisted young writers as writing coordinator for the New York Shakespeare Festival from 1975 to 1982 and served as playwright-in-residence at the American Place Theatre.

In addition to the Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, he also received three Rockefeller Foundation playwriting grants, a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, a Visionary Leadership Award from the Theatre Communications Group and an honorary doctor of letters from Columbia College. He taught at several colleges and universities including Northeastern University in Boston, M.A.

Bullins has written over 50 plays. His commitment to exploring the complexities of what it is like to be Black and engulfed by racism, family, music, religion, drugs, violence and everything else in America earned him recognition as one of the best American dramatists of all time.

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