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.
Black Broadway, An “Act” in Social Justice
“I write the black experience in America, and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all the universalities.”
— August Wilson
Whether it be Jennifer Holliday belting out “And I am Telling You”, from her Tony Award winning performance in Dreamgirls or Viola Davis’s mesmerizing scenes from her Tony Award winning performance in Fences, Black theatre has always been the rawest form of Art imitating Life. These performances of some of the greatest stories ever to be told, have created long lasting connections to song, scene’s, and lines that forever remain engrained in the minds of the black community. Hollywood and Television, give you a second take if you miss a line, an angle is off, or the passion isn’t right, but Broadway gives you one shot at success or failure, often duplicative of the black experience and condition.
Black theatre has been the window that allowed the world to see the intersections of blackness from less than 10 feet away. However, this same space for viewing the arts is often left out of the conversations when we discuss the media’s impact on social justice movements, and how Broadway has served as a conduit towards creating effective changes against the status quo. Historically, Black theatre has been the first to acknowledge society issues through raw storytelling of playwrights like Wilson, Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, and many others. Their works were much deeper than the “imitation of life”, as their minds allowed them to tell narratives of blackness, without censorship, giving the world 2-hour glimpses of the totality of the black experience.
From racially divided beginnings, however, Black theatre has, and at times continues to remain in the shadows, fighting for theatre space, roles, and narratives that depict stories often left on the back burner in society. The origins of “Blackface” serve as a reminder of where Broadway began, as white actors depicted black people as unintelligible beings while reinforcing stereotypes of the black community in an effort to create a good time at the hands of whiteness. Resistance began when black actors like Bert Williams, who played many characters in black face, gave a human element to his funny role instead of just being a caricature. His talent shined through and made him the first black man to star alongside white co-stars as equals in the “Follies”. This would only mark the beginning of resistance in Black theatre, as stories began to humanize black people in a country built on segregation.
In 1921, Shuffle Along became the first black show to forgo “blackface” and show African Americans in a sophisticated style of dress, introducing a new template for how black performers and shows would be depicted moving forward. In another step against the status quo, the show which had 504 performances became the first on Broadway to allow Blacks to sit in the orchestra section. 1935 would bring the world Porgy and Bess, which is claimed by many to be the most famous black opera to ever play on Broadway. This show depicted a side of blackness that many considered stereotypical but true, putting people face to face with parts of the black community we didn’t want others to see . The revival of this show in 2012 re-invited the world to the story on “Catfish Row”, winning a Tony Award for Audra McDonald and nomination for Norm Lewis.
This form of resistance is nothing new to Black theatre, which has always had to fight to be recognized not only for their talents but for the lives of folks they often portray on the stage. August 1st of 2016 saw the Black theatre come together for the “Broadway for Black Lives Concert Event” which brought out several stars including six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and Tony Award winner Billy Porter and nominee Danielle Brooks (The Color Purple) in addition several others. This concert was put on to show a stand in solidarity while supporting the efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement. According to the Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective, “An overwhelming number of friends and colleagues in the Broadway community have expressed a deep desire to participate in an open dialogue about the social and racial justice issues that are troubling our nation. The event will bring Broadway performers together with policy reformers, educators, clergymen, public officials, and community leaders to discuss a plan of action. The evening will spark conversation and encourage people to discover their roles as active participants in a movement towards positive change.” Black theatre has seemingly never been afraid to confront issues of the community off stage, but more recently has taken it right to face of the oppressor from the stage.
Following the 2016 election, the cast of Hamilton stood together in protest following the election of Donald Trump, when actor Bradon Victor Dixon, who play Aaron Burr, stated “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” His remarks caught the eye of the President who in a since-deleted tweet claimed his VP was “harassed” and deserved an apology, to which Dixon responded in a now deleted tweet “@realDonaldTrump conversation is not harassment sir. And I appreciate @mike_pence for stopping to listen.”
Black theatre has forever lived in the shadows of what many refer to as “The Great White Way.” A system, like many others that won’t be changed overnight but with constant work and resistance can be broken and built anew, reflective of the world we actually live in. The last century of Black theatre has seen great strides made towards equity and equality on and off the stage. I expect Act II to be just as great as all those that came prior, with the hopes of a “Curtain Call” for a job well done.
Hello, Dolly! The Past, The Present, and The Prospective Future
A few weeks ago, previews began for the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly! over at the Shubert Theatre. Midler last appeared on Broadway in her hilarious one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last at the Booth three years ago, and Fiddler on the Roof in 1967, when the actress had last starred in a musical on the Great White Way.
This revival of Hello, Dolly! marks the fourth incarnation of the Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman musical since its first inception in 1964, starring Carol Channing. The original production played well, but after three years and a slight decline in ticket sales, producer David Merrick decided he needed to shake things up a bit.
What better way to achieve shock value than to recast the show and create an all-Black version with the amazingly talented Pearl Bailey as matchmaker Dolly Levi and Cab Calloway as Horace Vandergelder.
Nowadays, a stunt like this would surprise no one, but in the late 1960s –a time of war and protest, racism and hate– the casting was nearly unheard of. The cast, however, didn’t deter people from seeing the show.
In fact, Hello, Dolly! opened to glowing reviews on November 12, 1967, at the St. James Theatre. This new version would later close on December 27, 1970, bringing the total cumulative Broadway run to 2,844 performances, thus making it the longest-running musical of its time.
Due to popularity, producers released another cast recording with the all-Black cast and Bailey received a Special Tony Award in 1968. She would eventually reprise her role in a short-lived revival in 1975 with Billy Daniels.
After her successful run as Dolly, more opportunities opened up for Black actresses to step into the role of the meddling matchmaker including: Thelma Carpenter, who actually went on as Bailey’s alternate on Wednesday matinees and performed in over 100 performances, Edwina Lewis, and E. Faye Bulter — whose 1990 version included the cut song “Love, Look in My Window.”
Looking back on this amazing production, and with the revival set to officially open in April, we got to thinking: If we could recast Hello, Dolly! today, who are some Black actresses we’d like to see?
Check out some of Team BB answers below:
JHD: Jenifer Lewis. She can blow, she has sass, she needs to be on Broadway since yesterday. And she would absolutely make an amazing Dolly. She actually played the title role back in 2009 in a Seattle Regional Production. If not a Broadway reprisal, we’ll settle for a revival of Mame too.
Tristan: Whoopi Goldberg, Queen Latifah, or Vanessa Williams. Here for all three of them, though the Ugly Betty fan in me is truly here for a Wilhelmina Slater-inspired Dolly.
Who would YOU cast? Sound off in the comments below.