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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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I believe a National Black Theatre is possible at this very moment.

It just takes people to get  together and to commit themselves and

to realize that, like LeRoi says, they need only the heart to do it.

And they have it. All they have to do is realize it.



Books By Ed Bullins

How Do You Do? / How Do You Do: A Nonsense Drama  / In the Wine Time / New Plays from The Black Theatre / Five Plays

The Electronic Nigger and Other Plays / A Black Quartet: Four New Black Plays  / The Duplex: A Black Love Fable in Four Movements

Four Dynamite Plays The Theme Is Blackness: The Corner and Other Plays  /  The Reluctant Rapist

The New Lafayette Theatre Presents the Complete Plays and Aesthetic Comments by Six Black Playwrights

I Am Lucy Terry Famous American Plays of the 1970s  

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Interview with Ed Bullins

By Marvin X


Marvin: How did you select the plays for this anthology [New Plays from the Black Theatre (1969)].

Ed: These plays are typical of the plays being done by Black writers and Black playwrights generally of the younger generation across the country. They include a wide range of plays, from revolutionary plays like Brother LeRoi Jones’ and Sister Sonia’s to historical plays like Brother Fuller’s and Brother Davidson’s, to plays on the Black Experience and life style such as my own play and Sister Salimu’s. That play is also a very revolutionary and sophisticated type of play in a very subtle vein.

Marvin: What is the connection between your plays In New England Winter and In the Wine Time?

Ed: In New England Winter is a continuation of the life of Cliff Dawson, one of the characters of In the Wine Time. In In New England Winter, Cliff is older, and the play presents a different side of his character. The play goes into the type of person Cliff’s brother is and how he differs from Cliff. It describes some of the problems he gets into and goes through, and how he gets out of them through the aid of Cliff.

Cliff is more resigned to the reality of his identity, so now he is just “living through it.” So, the second play just takes us further in time and flashes back to a previous time and introduces another character in the complete cycle that I have been working on, which is devoted to  a group of Black characters and a family.

Marvin: How do you feel about all the new Black theatres that are emerging?

Ed: I feel good! I feel good! I moved into the theatre for a number of reasons. But I guess it was a natural move because I was writing a number of things. I was busting my head trying to write novels and felt somehow that my people don’t read novels. My family doesn’t, except for my mother and some of the young kids who are now going to school. But for the great bulk of them, they don’t read novels. But when they are in the theatre, then I’ve got them.

So I moved away from prose forms and into theatre. Black literature has been available for years, but it has been circulating in a close circle—the Black arts circle and the colleges. It hasn’t been getting down to the people. But now in the theatre, we can go right into the Black community and have a literature for the people, for the “people-people,’ as Bob Macbeth says—for the great masses of Black people. I think this is the reason that more Black plays are being written and seen, and the reason that more Black theatres are springing up.

Through the efforts of certain Black artists, people are beginning to realize the importance of Black theatre. LeRoi began this movement through his Black Arts project in Harlem and now with the Spirit House in Newark which takes his plays across the country. Other groups such as the old Black Arts/West on the Coast which we had a hand in, the Aldridge Players/West also on the Coast, the free southern Theatre, Concept East in Detroit, and now the New Lafayette in Harlem have tried to continue what LeRoi began. As a result of these efforts, theatre is becoming more acceptable to black people on the whole. It is less of a novelty and becoming a necessary part of their cultural life.

More young people are writing plays and more Black theatre workers think of doing for their people and for themselves There is a great deal more activity than in ’65. There was no Black theatre to do your plays in then. If you were in San Francisco, as we were, you know there was nobody to do Flowers from the Trashman. Black people had to come together and create our own theatre. This has had great reverberations. Many things have come from it. It’s like dropping a rock in a pool; the waves haven’t stopped yet.

Marvin:How do you see the whole Black Arts experience? On the West Coast?

Ed: It came at a time when my life changed a great deal. I was a very frustrated and evil cat. I wasn’t at peace with myself, as an artist, as a person. And I think many of us came into Black Arts in similar states of agitation and hostility and madness.

It was a purging experience to go through, to start a theatre on nothing and make it work, to put all our energies and lives into it and to have our people—our Black people—appreciate it was a gas, to have our people, not the supposedly distinguished or knowledgeable, not the Jackson Robinsons of the world or the Adam Clayton Powells, or anything like that, but our people, our people on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, who would come up to us the next day in the street and say, “Man, that was boss.”

And you can go out there, and the people still say, “Man, when you gonna so some more plays,” still remembering and looking forward to more work to be done by Black groups now functioning like Mel Khalim and the Bantu Players. Moving my whole art back into my original reference which is my people, my community fulfills me and makes me want to work. It makes me a peaceful, creative brother who wants to build, to create for the Black people and the nation, where before I was like a very, very disturbed cat—I was a misfit, a Western, Negro/artist misfit.

To paraphrase, Brother Mao, those writers and artists who pursue bourgeois art become misfits because they separate themselves from the people to become dilettantes, personifying decadent culture instead of exposing and examining it. To extol decadence is to become decadent.

Marvin: What about the idea of a National Black Theatre? What would be the purpose, as you see it?

Ed: It would be a medium for communication to raise the consciousness throughout the nation for Black artistic, political, and cultural consciousness. It would keep a hell of a lot of people working—Black theatre people—and doing what they have to do. And it would be an institution for the Black people in America who are a nation within a nation. It would be an institutional base to lay the foundations of our society and our culture and our nation. It would be an institutional form like Black schools, which are becoming more prominent.

The Black theatre would be power in a sense, power in pure terms of capitalist facilities—buildings, things, places—and power, in another sense, to control people’s minds, to educate them, and to persuade them. It would be power in the sense of welding together Black artists of many disciplines, because the theatre is a collective effort of many arts which come together to get the spirit going. And we would get some unity that way. When you have a Black theatre and you have a Black audience and a Black artist, then the idea of getting people back together will be passé.

The people will be together and all you will have to do while they are together will be to tell them things which are beneficial and progressive and revolutionary. Those are some of the aspects of a National Black Theatre. I believe a National Black Theatre is possible at this very moment. It just takes people to get together and to commit themselves and to realize that, like LeRoi says, they need only the heart to do it. And they have it. All they have to do is realize it. And they can do it. Because there are enough Black theatre administrators, Black theatre technicians, enough Black managers of Black entertainers, orchestras and traveling troupes.

The know-how within the body of the Black people is there. It is just a matter of getting them and organizing them on a consistent basis to do the thing. We have information we have gathered over the past few years, such as the kinds of Black educational institutions, many of whom want Black theatre groups and could benefit from them. We know most of the Black cultural organizations throughout the country that are doing anything. And many of us know each other. It’s just getting together and getting us to utilize our knowledge. We are hoping to do that at conferences and other projects we will be doing this year.

So it’s a possibility. It’s just getting it going. You know, before there was a Black Arts theatre, people thought it wasn’t possible. Before there was a Spirit House, Black people thought it wasn’t possible. Before the New Lafayette, Black people thought we couldn’t have a theatre. But, now we know it is all possible and it only takes enough pride, application, and work to do these things.

So we are going to use a little elbow grease to get a Black National Theatre together in the coming months, so we’ll have a circuit across the country through which we can go to the people.

Marvin:As a playwright, what have you gained from your association with the New Lafayette Theatre?

Ed: I don’t get as much from watching my plays as I used to. After I finish a play now, I can’t really read it for some months. I only start thinking about it after it’s done. It’s from the association with the New Lafayette Theatre—working with all the actors and directors, seeing how things are put together, working on Black Theatre Magazine (a magazine which is concerned with what we are doing in the New Lafayette and in other Black theatres across the country)—that I gain the greatest advantage right now.

The association with other black artists—being stimulated and growing as I am growing, knowing who we are working for, and perceiving in some way how we are working, what things we are bringing into our work, and what we are struggling through to make our art more consistent and correct for the needs of our people at this time—these are the most important aspects of my work. We don’t want to have a higher form of white art in black-face. We are working towards something entirely different and new that encompasses the soul and spirit of Black people, and that represents the whole experience of our being here in this oppressive land.

We are attempting to take all the things that are positive in us, our music, our very strong religious expression, our own life style, and incorporate them into our art on a collective basis. Our aim is not only to become better artists, individually and collectively, but to create a uniform positive art.  In ten years the things we do now will be recognizable, but we will be far beyond them. By then, I think our art will be completely different from white Anglo-Saxon Western art. It will be totally black!

Marvin: Were you satisfied with the New Lafayette’s production of In the Wine Time?

Ed: Yes, I was very satisfied with it. It could have been done in other ways, but the production came out very positive. I liked the way the audience responded. I know I could not have gotten a production of the same quality downtown, down in Mad land, off-Broadway or wherever that other thing is, or anywhere else on this earth at this time. I am very pleased to have a whole theatre in my corner, encouraging me to write for them, wanting to do my plays the best they can, not each wanting to be stars and running off with the thing, trying to find the latest fad that the faggots are trying to make a new HAIR out of . . . BLACK HAIR . . . it could be called . . . or something. It was done Black and that is the only way I could see it, and I am very happy with it.

Marvin:: How do you feel being called America’s greatest playwright?

Ed: Who called me that?

Marvin: It’s been in print.

Ed: Well, I don’t know what that means because that makes me feel like a traitor. First, I don’t feel like an American. And then, I don’t understand the criteria that may be used to measure my soul with a soulless folk. It puts me very up-tight. I don’t really know what that means. It is only because I’m up here working and not downtown. If I was down there, their audience wouldn’t even understand me. Their critics have no conception of what Black is or the nuances of my mind which is a Black mind, or the strengths and weaknesses of my spirit. Consequently, it would be a different tale. I don’t know how to answer the question, except that it’s distressing.

Marvin: What people have influenced you?

Ed: I guess LeRoi Jones influenced me most directly as a playwright. Bob Macbeth influenced me very profoundly and pervasively but more subtly. Le Roi was my first influence. I had heard about LeRoi’s plays and read them before I actually saw them. I was reading a lot of plays and I was going to a lot of plays, as many as I could in San Francisco, which isn’t a theatre town. And I wanted to write a play. For a whole year, I wanted to write a play, but I thought it would be a big complicated mess. You had to know this and that. So I started reading plays.

I read the Absurd people, and I read some of the contemporary plays which aren’t really contemporary. I became familiar with who was writing and who was doing what. And then I got drunk one night and I wrote How Do You Do. So since I had written one play, I had to write another. Two weeks later, I wrote Dialect Determinism. Then it was time to get my plays produced. It’s not good to let plays just sit on the desk. This was 1965. I took them around to different places, including Aldridge Players/West. People said the plays were obscene. So I took them around to different places in san Francisco, but nobody would go for my plays, Black or white.

So then I said, “Well, I’ll do them myself!” Buck Hartman was going to direct them. He knew Martin Hartman and I were calling ourselves the San Francisco Drama Circle, a name we got off some defunct outfit with which Hartman had previously been associated. He was directing and fronting. I was hustling the capital and getting the company together and breathing the spirit into the thing. Then Ponch, who was a kind third-rate producer in the scheme, wanted to put on another play, written by himself or some other white cat that was atrocious about Black-white relations.

So I sat down and wrote Clara’s Ole Man. While we were rehearsing and trying to get it together, an angel came in and wanted us to move to a bigger theatre, with promises of money, complete backing, etc. We had an argument with Ponch who smelled money and took us through changes. So we moved and went to another theatre. The Contemporary Theatre in san Francisco. We were going to do it there, but then they told us it would be bad for business since The Toilet and Dutchman were in town. So the whole deal was squelched. The angel fled. We were left with no theatre.

We were rehearsing in lofts and other places, but we kept together and kept rehearsing. Finally, we went back to the Firehouse and got exploited but did the plays. Several months later, I started Black Arts/West with you, Marvin, Hillery X Broadus, and Duncan Barber, jr. But before that, when the former group was hassling with white shysters, opportunists, and exploiters, I went to see The Toilet and Dutchman, and a whole new world opened up to me. Until I saw The Toilet, I didn’t realize how right I was in what I had done in Clara’s Ole Man.

I saw Clara was a radical departure from the work of those black playwrights I had read. It was radical in its depiction of Black people, but I didn’t realize how right it was in a deep and profoundly revolutionary sense, until I saw The Toilet. After that I could say to myself that I had written Clara’s Ole Man, and it was good. I was able to settle that, come hell or high water, my way is the way it’s going to be. I am the single critic of my work that I trust.

At the same time of seeing The Toilet, however, I still didn’t know what I was doing to do about my work in terms of the overall thing that I wanted to create. I had nothing to connect with, no stable association. But now that’s why the New Lafayette has been so great. Through it, I have some feedback, something with which to gauge my work.

I hadn’t really found myself until I saw what the other young Black playwrights were doing. Then I was able to give up working on my novels, essays, and short stories and go back to my plays. The Black theatre has been the great current influence on my life. My work is my life and my life is my work.

LeRoi has greatly influenced many young black artists. I say without reservation that LeRoi is one of the most important, most significant figures in American theatre. Hardly anybody realizes this now except Black playwrights and artists. We know that the Man (LeRoi) has changed theatre in this country. His contribution to Black theatre will have a great effect on all theatre in this country.

If people say that I’m the greatest American playwright, then they must also admit and acknowledge that LeRoi Jones is one of the most significant figures in American, world, and Black theatre. He created me as a playwright and created many other young Black playwrights including many that you will find in this book, New Plays from The Black Theatre.

Source: New Plays from The Black Theatre (1969)

posted 13 November 2006

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