Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Parable of Ed Bullins, playwright of BAM

Ed Bullins


After forty years of writing plays, Ed Bullins may soon see his name on a Broadway marquee for the first time. But his greatest reward? Knowing he’s connected with audiences, both large and small.

By Karen Feldscher

Ed Bullins has been called “one of the most powerful black voices in contemporary American theater.” “America’s greatest living playwright.” Prolific. Influential. Gifted. Legendary theater critic Clive Barnes has said he “writes like an angel.”

You’ve probably never heard of Ed Bullins.

But those who know something about African-American theater, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, surely have. They regard him as a founding father.

Bullins, who’s taught at Northeastern since 1995 and currently holds the title Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, has written more than a hundred plays, give or take. Don’t ask him to verify the number; even he can’t say for sure how many there are. Anyway, he considers only about thirty of them “real,” meaning they were written and produced to his satisfaction.

Though Bullins has written historical dramas, musicals, and absurdist pieces, his plays typically center around urban blacks living the dark side by the bucketful—drugs and drink, poverty, prostitution, violence, dashed hopes and dreams.

Longtime friend Mort Kaplan, a former Northeastern theatre professor and department chair who brought Bullins to Huntington Avenue, says this could be why the plays haven’t made it to Broadway. The Taking of Miss Janie, for example, which won Bullins two prestigious theater awards, features the title character’s onstage rape. “Broadway producers were afraid” of the plays’ rawness, Kaplan says.

Yet if all goes according to plan, by the time Bullins turns sixty-eight this July, he’ll be well on his way to mounting his first Broadway show, a musical called Hot Feet. It’s based on the life of Leonard Harper, a Harlem Renaissance director, dancer, showman, and all-round impresario at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.

Bullins wrote Hot Feet as a nonmusical play about a decade ago. It attracted little attention until producer Morris Berchard suggested turning it into a musical. Bullins rewrote the original treatment—fifteen times—to fit the new form.

His reaction to the prospect of finally seeing his name on the Great White Way? He quips, perhaps only half in jest, “I know some people who would say, ‘Bullins has sold out—he’s writing a musical. Not only a musical, but a Broadway musical!’”

Yet Bullins knows the play’s period and setting would be rich ground for any dramatist. “Hot Feet looks back at a time when many were despairing, while others had great opportunities,” he says. “It was adventurous. Groundbreaking. It’s good to tell that story.”

The Broadway show—Berchard says it’s in the “creative stage” and should open sometime during the next one to three years—isn’t the only recognition headed Bullins’s way. Between twenty and thirty of his plays, along with selections of his fiction and poetry, are being gathered into a book called The Ed Bullins Reader, to be published by the University of Michigan Press next year.

A healthy measure of accolades have already come to Bullins over his long career. A trilogy of plays—A Son, Come Home; The Electronic Nigger; and Clara’s Ole Man—earned him the 1968 Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award. In 1971, he earned an Obie and the Black Arts Alliance Award for both The Fabulous Miss Marie and In New England Winter. The Taking of Miss Janie garnered an Obie and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1975.

He’s received Guggenheim fellowships and playwriting grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other funding organizations. A book titled Ed Bullins: A Literary Biography, by Samuel Hay, was published in 1997. The same year, Bullins’s 1969 play Goin’ a Buffalo was included in the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, coedited by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“That is so major, to be picked as one of the examples of African-American literature,” says Kaplan, who believes The Taking of Miss Janie would have won a Tony or a Pulitzer if the New York production had been mounted at a Broadway theater, instead of at Lincoln Center. Such distinctions mattered in the 1970s. “If it had been produced today,” Kaplan says, “it would have won, hands down.”

In the trenches

Bullins’s powers of observation yield plays that are startlingly real. And he’s content to let the plays speak for themselves: Bullins is not a particularly chatty man.

Even Kaplan, who’s known him a long time, calls him “wary.” During a lull in a conversation, when someone else might leap to fill the void, Bullins allows the silence to simmer while he carefully considers his next point. He seems to be more comfortable observing than speaking, sizing up people and situations in his head rather than offering analysis.

His plays clearly grow out of personal experience. Bullins grew up in West and North Philadelphia, neighborhoods where you still see block after block of shabby row houses painted shades of brown, sidewalks littered with broken glass, graffiti-splattered walls, people hanging out outside the local bars. His mother, Bertha, who worked as a seamstress, raised him. He doesn’t know much about his father.

Bertha loved to read, and stressed the importance of education. “Early on, she gave me a book by Richard Wright, Black Boy,” Bullins recalls. The autobiographical novel about the struggles of a young writer in the Jim Crow South shook him. “It had a big impact on me. In fact, it scared the heck out of me. There were so many parallels to my own life.”

The youngster got another kind of education on North Philly’s rough streets. During junior high, he joined a street gang. As Bullins told writer Jervis Anderson, who wrote a profile of the playwright for the New Yorker in 1973, “If you passed through the territory of a rival gang, you got your butt kicked. Ferguson Junior High, where I went, was outside my territory, so most times I had to fight my way to school and fight my way back. You were always in danger of getting done in.”

Like other gang members, Bullins sold whiskey, ran numbers, and gambled. “In the black community, you survived by whatever means you could,” he told Anderson, adding, “What did I get out of the experience? I lived. I learned how to survive. I’m a street nigger.”

During one fight, Bullins was stabbed in the neck. He almost died. He had one of those classic near-death experiences, seeing a bright light and feeling as if he were outside his body. He took his recovery as a sign that he was brought back to do something important.

Starting in 1952, shortly after dropping out of high school, he spent three years in the Navy. During that time, Bullins started a program of self-education, reading everything he could get his hands on. After leaving the service, he spent three years in Philadelphia. He avoids saying much when questioned about that time, though he did tell Anderson, “There was nothing I could do in Philly. Today most of my friends from there are either winos, junkies, or dead.”

Bullins moved to Los Angeles, earned his GED, enrolled at Los Angeles Community College, and struggled to reconcile his interest in literature with his desire to make a decent living. He tried studying economics; when that didn’t hook him, he turned to electronics. “But I found myself writing poetry and a play in the electronics workshop,” he says, laughing.

“I didn’t think much of being an English major,” he says. “What kind of work could I do with English? But I had fallen in love with literature; I was trying to take every English class I could.”

The reluctant artist started a creative-writing club and a campus literary magazine, to which he contributed fiction, essays, and poetry. Inspired by a student production of Look Back in Anger, John Osborne’s look at working-class hopelessness in England just after World War II, Bullins began to teach himself playwriting, reading two plays a week and seeing as many productions as he could.

In 1964, still shy of a degree, Bullins left Los Angeles for San Francisco. He continued to pursue an undergraduate degree at San Francisco State College, studying comparative literature and creative writing. Both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Bullins had a mixed reaction to higher education, finding only a handful of teachers who offered support. One professor told him he’d never be a writer. It only stiffened his resolve.

Making his mark

Bullins started taking odd jobs in the theater business—stagehand, even floor sweeper. He wrote, mostly poetry and fiction. And then the plays began to come.

Bullins directingHe showed three at San Francisco’s Firehouse Repertory Theatre in 1965: How Do You Do, Dialect Determinism (or The Rally), and Clara’s Ole Man. “I got them done, but it was a pretty harrowing experience,” he recalls. “I had to find people to put up the money, get a director and actors together. I’d never done it, but through force of will, and a lot of help from other people, and good luck, I did it. Then I was hooked on theater.”

Discouraged by his failure to interest producers in his work, Bullins regained his determination after seeing LeRoi Jones’s 1964 play Dutchman. Jones, who now goes by the name Amiri Baraka, was exploring the same kinds of social and racial issues Bullins was passionate about. He began to believe he was on to something.

Bullins and Baraka were key players in a group of African-American artists known as the Black Arts Movement, which, the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature says, “sought to transform the manner in which black Americans were represented or portrayed in literature and the arts.”

The anthology characterizes the plays authored by Baraka and Bullins as “conversational, black, slice-of-life,” challenging audiences “to bring to the theater a ready ear for discordant truths.”

Along with a young playwright named Marvin Jackmon (later known as Marvin X) and a few others, Bullins formed a group called Black Arts/West. They mounted a number of plays by Bullins, Jackmon, and Baraka, working with African-American students from San Francisco State. “We did a whole cultural explosion of plays and poetry,” recalls Bullins. “It was revolutionary, unifying, rallying.”

Bullins briefly got involved in San Francisco’s Black Panther movement. He and Jackmon were the cultural-arts wing of Black House, an organization whose political endeavors were run by Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Huey Newton. A center for performance, theater, poetry, and music, Black House briefly served as Black Panther headquarters. But the cultural and political factions had a falling out, and “the political people had the guns, so they purged us,” Bullins says, able to laugh in hindsight.

Though Bullins and Jackmon tried to keep Black Arts/West afloat, funding was a problem. “We didn’t have the discipline, or the vision, or the commitment,” Bullins says. Once Black Arts/West folded, Bullins started looking for a new path.

And found it. In 1967, a New York agent put him in contact with Robert Macbeth, who was starting a theater in Harlem, the New Lafayette. Bullins became its playwright-in-residence, later its associate director. Bullins’s six years at the New Lafayette were one of his most prolific periods. He wrote or produced almost a dozen plays, and completed a novel.

In New York, Bullins resumed his affiliation with the Black Panthers after mending fences with Eldridge Cleaver during a San Francisco visit. He agreed to serve as the Panthers’ minister of culture and organize fundraisers. But Bullins was absorbed by his theater work, so the reunion was short-lived. “The political part just sort of fell away,” he says.

The New Lafayette mounted many Bullins works. Soon his plays were being produced at other New York venues, such as the American Place Theatre, La Mama Experimental Theatre, the Public Theatre, and Lincoln Center. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, reviews of his plays appeared frequently in such publications as the New York Times and the New Yorker. “I became a promising name,” Bullins says. “I had arrived.”

According to Samuel Hay, Bullins also mentored “a whole generation of young playwrights” in New York in the 1970s. Bullins, writes Hay, “helped to change the ‘kill-whitey’ rhetoric in Black Revolutionary drama and the cussing and fussing in Black Experience drama . . . [and] assisted the young writers not only by conducting workshops but also by publishing and producing their plays.”

Serenades of the streets

The action of Bullins’s plays, certainly his most important ones, are in and of the ghetto. Critic James Giles says the plays contain “a sense of once-glimpsed loyalty, sensitivity, and romance, which the ghetto reality of the setting makes impossible to attain. . . . [The message is] that the reality of Black life in America perverts and destroys human dreams—whether of pure romance or of economic independence—and makes personal loyalty all but obsolete.” All too frequently, Bullins’s characters face disillusionment and a profound sense of loss.

The plays “all but ignore the theme found in most of his contemporaries’ plays, that all whites are enemies of African Americans,” writes Hay. In fact, Bullins rejects political rhetoric and violent revolution. His themes, Hay says, “concern people’s needs for sexual satisfaction, safety, economic security, family, esteem, and self-improvement.”

The plays’ forms tend to be improvisational. Bullins has said he takes his cues from the rhythms of such jazz greats as Miles Davis and John Coltrane; actual music often figures in the plays, either from an onstage radio or a combo. The plays may be bracketed by prologues or monologues, invite audience participation reminiscent of the call-and-response tradition in the black church, include fantasy sequences, or move back and forth in time.

Some critics attack the structure of the plays, calling them “episodic” or “unfocused.” Bullins says he meant the plays to be unconventional. “I was trying to do something new every time,” he says. “It was experimental.”

Their strong language occasionally strikes a raw chord with critics. African-American critics, in particular, have complained the plays depict a black ghetto with no sense of community, no moral values. Asked about that, Bullins says, “It’s true that some plays don’t show many redeeming values. It’s [like] the on-ramp at Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard—what redeeming values can you find there? People are going as fast as they can. People are trying to grab hold of a nickel or a quarter, or have some unsafe sex, or get a drug. I have a play called The Corner. That’s what happens on the corner.”

Other critics admire what Bullins does. Some see parallels with Chekhov in the plays’ meandering structure and the characters’ naturalistic aimlessness. Clive Barnes has called Bullins “a playwright with his hand on the jugular vein of the people. . . . [He] writes so easily and naturally that you watch the plays and you get the impression of overhearing them rather than seeing them.”

In the New Yorker, Jervis Anderson wrote that though the plays focus on society’s rough edges—ex-cons, weapons, hustlers, hookers, drugs, joblessness—Bullins describes that world with “a genuine compassion and gentleness and love, and an ear that captures the energy and poetry of the language of the streets.”

Bullins was gratified when his work began to be honored. But, he admits, “I didn’t even know what the awards were at first. I was so na├»ve. When I got the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, I thought, okay, what’s next? And the Obie—I didn’t know exactly what that was about. Then I started getting grants and fellowships that had money attached to them. Although my greatest award was having a wonderful audience that loved the play, it also helps to have money. I had a family, and I had to support them.”

Writing never made Bullins rich, so he taught writing classes at places like Fordham, Bronx Community College, and New York University. The teaching gigs were part-time, because he still didn’t have a degree. Besides, he didn’t want full-time teaching work. “Since I was doing plays, I felt it would have been selling out,” he says.

His commitment to Harlem theater even led him to turn down other writing offers, including a chance to pen the Lady Sings the Blues screenplay. “Of course, I looked back years later and said, ‘Wow, if only I had taken that!’ But then, I might have corrupted myself,” Bullins says. “I might have drunk too much good wine. You see people who get a lot of money too soon and burn up, like a moth before a candle.”

Bullins says the highlights of those years were when, after a performance of one of his plays, he’d walk anonymously with the audience as they left the theater, listening to what they had to say. He heard audience members who “were involved in the play; they were moved by it.” It’s a postperformance ritual he maintains today.

A “living legend”

Bullins worked with the New Lafayette until funding problems closed it in 1973, then became playwright-in-residence at the American Place Theatre.

Some have noted that Bullins’s creative output lessened after the 1970s. Bullins acknowledges ups and downs, saying, “At certain periods in my life, I seemed to disappear from public. I wasn’t in jail, but I do have people close to me who are or who have been in jail. I have a family ranging from scientists and artists, to other strata. You know, an all-American black family.”

At one point, Bullins was a single parent focused on his kids (he declines to say much about his immediate or extended family). “Sometimes I was busy with other things,” he says simply.

Bullins continued to make ends meet through teaching gigs and theater jobs that included everything from public relations to ticket sales. He led summer drama workshops. He taught playwriting and black theater on the East and West Coasts. He finally earned his elusive bachelor’s degree, from Antioch University in 1989, and in 1994 earned an MFA from San Francisco State University.

A year after that, he was hired as a theatre professor at Northeastern, and for a time was the acting director of the university’s Center for the Arts. In 1997, Bullins told a Boston Globe interviewer the Northeastern job had saved his life. “It was a reaffirmation of my worth,” he explains today. “It recognized the contribution I had made and gave me a foundation.”

Kaplan, who had brought Bullins to the university several times in the 1970s for artist-in-residence stints, was thrilled to help his friend get the full-time Northeastern position. Though Kaplan left the university in 1996, he and Bullins continue to work together. This summer, they hope to produce in Boston a play written by Shirley Timmreck—an eightysomething whose work Bullins discovered while serving as a judge at an annual theater conference in Alaska.

And Bullins’s own work is alive and well. His play Boy x Man (pronounced “boy times man”) was staged in North Carolina, New York, and Boston in the late 1990s. Dr. Geechee and the Blood Junkies, a 1985 play about drug dealers and cops, had a Boston production in 1998. And Bullins’s 1969 play, We Righteous Bombers, was produced at Northeastern in January.

Six years ago, Bullins was designated a “living legend” by the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the time, he told the Boston Globe he hoped the designation didn’t mean “living fossil.”

That clearly isn’t the case. The man Kaplan calls “extraordinarily energetic” writes ten-minute plays for the annual Boston Theater Marathons, mentors local playwrights through a group called ACT Roxbury, works with another playwright through New York’s Cherry Lane Theater, and helps bring other African-American artists to Northeastern. As a professor, he teaches classes on the Black Arts Movement and the black theater’s history and culture.

And, of course, Bullins teaches playwriting. He shows students how to construct scenes and acts, gives them writing exercises, prods them to read their work aloud to “take their work off the page and make it a living thing,” he says, and to read and see as many plays as they can.

Now Bullins’s star may be about to shine brighter. Hot Feet producer Berchard—while acknowledging that even the most prestigious theater projects can be shelved “indefinitely,” usually for lack of funds—says he and executive

producer Donald Farber are “determined to work this one through. We’re going to take it to the Broadway stage.”

Berchard is determined because he thinks Bullins’s tale of Leonard Harper and the Harlem Renaissance is “a story that needs to be told.”

“People love the period,” he adds. “They love the jazz music, the intrigue around the involvement of the mob in the clubs of Harlem. And there’s going to be terrific dancing. It’s a show about an amazing tap dancer. Leonard Harper was a dancer, choreographer, and producer of stage shows. And yet very few people knew about him.”

Like Bullins himself, actually. A hard-working artist who, for one reason or another, hasn’t achieved widespread fame. Berchard says Harper “craved” fame. This has not been true of Bullins.

“I try to write the best play I can,” Bullins says. “I try to be one of the outstanding playwrights of my generation. I think by looking at some of my better plays, audiences will learn something. If nothing more, they’ll learn what a good play looks like.”

He pauses. “I hope my work is memorable and important, and worthy of the name of art.”

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