Ed Bullins, one of the greatest black playwrights of the 20th century and a leading voice in the black art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died Saturday at his home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was 86 years old.
His wife, Marva Sparks, said the cause was complications from dementia.
During his 55-year career in which he produced nearly 100 plays, Mr. Bullins sought to mirror the black urban experience that was not mitigated by the expectations of traditional theater. Most of his work has appeared in Black Theaters in Harlem and Oakland, California, and perhaps because of this, he never reached the level of recognition welcomed by colleagues like August Wilson, whose plays appeared on Broadway and were adapted for the big screen (and which often ? attributed an influence to Mr. Bullins).
That was good for Mr. Bullins. He often said that he did not write for a white or middle-class audience, but for the nerdy, prostitute and quiet sufferers whose struggles he tried to capture in burning works such as “In the Wine Time” (1968) and “The Taking of Miss Janie” . (1975).
“He was able to create the basis to get to his pieces,” said the writer Ishmael Reed in an interview. “He was a black playwright who advocated the values of urban experience. Some of these people had probably never seen a play before. “
Despite being a careful student of white playwrights like Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, Mr. Bullins rejected many of their conventions and pursued a casual, fast-paced style that relied equally on avant-garde jazz and television – two forms that he did wrong kept him closer to the register of his intended audience.
He won three Obie Awards and two Guggenheim Fellowships, and in 1975 the New York Drama Critics’ Circle named “The Taking of Miss Janie” the best American play of the year.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about his work. Some critics, including some in the black press, believed he focused too much on the violence and crime he saw in working class black lives and reflected them too brutally – “The Taking of Miss Janie,” for example begins and closes with a rape scene.
But most critics, especially in the establishment, valued Mr. Bullins as an artist who was both passionately true to his source material and nuanced enough in vision not to become doctrinal.
“He has dealt with topics that, on the surface, were very specific to the Black experience,” said playwright Richard Wesley in an interview. “But Ed also went out of his way to show the humanity of his characters, and that made him accessible to an audience outside of the Black community.”
Edward Artie Bullins was born on July 7, 1935 in Philadelphia and grew up on the North Side of the city. His father, Edward Bullins, left home when Ed was a young child and he was raised by his mother, Bertha Marie (Queen) Bullins, who worked for the city government.
Although he performed well in school, he was drawn to the harsh street life of the North Side. He joined a gang, lost two front teeth in one fight, and was stabbed in the heart of another.
In 1952 he dropped out of school and joined the Navy. He served as an ensign aboard the aircraft carrier Midway for most of the next three years, where he won a lightweight boxing championship.
In 1955 he returned to Philadelphia and three years later moved to Los Angeles. He attended night school for a high school equivalency diploma, then attended Los Angeles City College, where he founded Citadel magazine and wrote short stories for it.
In 1962 he married the poet Pat Cooks. She accused him of threatening her with violence and they divorced in 1966. (She later remarried and took the surname Parker.)
Mr Bullins’ subsequent marriage to Trixie Bullins was divorced. Together with his third wife he leaves behind his sons Ronald and Sun Ra; his daughters Diane Bullins, Patricia Oden, and Catherine Room; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Four other children, Ameena, Darlene, Donald, and Eddie Jr., died before him.
Restless and dissatisfied with his job in Los Angeles, Mr. Bullins moved to San Francisco in 1964, where he joined a growing community of black writers. He also switched from writing prose to writing plays – partly, he said, because he was lazy, but also because he felt the theater gave him more direct access to the everyday black experience.
His first play, How Do You Do, an absurd one-act encounter between a middle-class black couple and a working-class black man, was produced in 1965 and received positive reviews. But he wasn’t sure of his decision to write plays until a few months later he saw a double production of “The Dutchman” and “The Slave,” two plays by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, a leading black figure Art movement.
“I told myself I have to be on the right track,” Mr. Bullins told the New Yorker in 1973. “I could see that a seasoned playwright like Jones was dealing with the same qualities and conditions of black life that moved me. ”
The Black Arts Movement, then primarily an East Coast phenomenon, was a loose association of novelists, playwrights, and poets whose work sought to reflect the modern black experience on its own terms – written and produced by Black people in black spaces for a black audience.
Mr. Bullins had found his community and through it his voice. He joined a circle of Bay Area writers, actors and activists who performed his work in bars and coffeehouses.
Among them was Eldridge Cleaver, who, after his release from prison in 1966, used a portion of the proceeds from his memoir “Soul on Ice” to start Black House, an arts and community center in San Francisco, led by Mr. Bullins Artist in residence.
Black House also became the city headquarters for the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Mr. Bullins became the party’s minister of culture.
But his role with the Black Panthers was short-lived. From his point of view, at least, the party saw art only as a weapon, and he resented Mr. Seale’s insistence on creating didactic, often explicitly Marxist, pieces. He also became frustrated with the party’s interest in building a coalition with radical white allies when seeking a movement completely independent of white culture.
“I have no messianic urges,” he told the New York Times in 1975. “On every other street corner someone is telling you Christ or Mao is the answer. You can take any ism and be saved by it. If you’re part of a movement and it fulfills you, that’s cool, but I like to look at everything. “
He left the party in late 1966, just before Black House closed.
Mr. Bullins considered moving to Europe or South America, but changed his mind when Robert Macbeth, founder of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem, invited him as artist in residence.
He arrived in New York in 1967 and the next six years of his work, mainly at the New Lafayette Theater, were the high point of his career. The theater was a complete package: a 14-person drama troupe, 14 musicians, several playwrights and directors and an attached art gallery, the Weusi Artist Collective, which produced the sets.
Mr. Bullins also led workshops for budding playwrights, many of whom, like Mr. Wesley, became major voices of the next generation of black theater artists.
A year after his arrival, he completed In the Wine Time, his first full-length piece and the first in a series he called his “Twentieth Century Cycle” – 20 pieces that, through a group of friends, tell the story of urban life in the Post-war told. In 1971 he won his first obie for “The Fabulous Miss Marie” and “In New England Winter”.
In 1973 he left the New Lafayette Theater just before it was closed for lack of money. His work in the 1970s has performed at the New Federal Theater, La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, the Public Theater, and elsewhere.
In 1972 he got into a battle of words with the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, which was performing his play “The Duplex”. Although he initially endorsed the production, he later said in an interview that “the original black intentions” of the piece had been “foiled” and “its artistic integrity trampled”, turning it into a “minstrel show.”
He exchanged attacks with producer Jules Irving and director Gilbert Moses in the New York Times and elsewhere, but in the end the play continued. It received mixed reviews.
That episode, fair or not, gave Mr. Bullins a reputation for working hard with him, one of the reasons he cited for his return to the West Coast in the 1980s. He continued to write plays, but also produced works by others, including Mr. Reed, at his Bullins Memorial Theater in Oakland, named for his son Eddie Jr., who was killed in a 1978 car accident.
Mr. Bullins also returned to school. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the Antioch University campus in San Francisco in 1989 and a master’s degree in fine arts in dramaturgy from San Francisco State University in 1994.
The next year he moved to Boston, where he became a professor in the theater department at Northeastern University. In 2012 he retired.
By then, he had long since changed his mind about his audience, in large part because he and others in the black art movement were successful in their mission to build a black cultural canon.
“Of course, black writers can write for any audience,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “In my opinion, the question of whether black theater should appeal to whites was more valid a decade ago. Since then, the black theater has developed in all directions. “