Authors: Ed Bullins

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Identity: African American

Author Works


Clara’s Ole Man, pr. 1965

Dialect Determinism: Or, The Rally, pr. 1965

How Do You Do?, pr. 1965

The Theme Is Blackness, pr. 1966

A Son, Come Home, pr. 1968

The Electronic Nigger, pr. 1968

Goin’a Buffalo, pr. 1968

In the Wine Time, pr. 1968

The Gentleman Caller, pr. 1969

Five Plays, pb. 1969 (includes Clara’s Ole Man, A Son, Come Home, The Electronic Nigger, Goin’a Buffalo, and In the Wine Time)

We Righteous Bombers, pr. 1969 (as Kingsley B. Bass, Jr.; adaptation of Albert Camus’s play Les Justes)

In New England Winter, pb. 1969

A Ritual to Raise the Dead and Foretell the Future, pr. 1970

The Pig Pen, pr. 1970

The Duplex, pr. 1970

Street Sounds, pr. 1970

The Devil Catchers, pr. 1971

The Fabulous Miss Marie, pr. 1971

House Party, pr. 1973 (lyrics; music by Pat Patrick)

The Theme Is Blackness, pb. 1973 (collection)

The Taking of Miss Janie, pr. 1975

Home Boy, pr. 1976 (lyrics; music by Aaron Bell)

Jo Anne!, pr. 1976

Daddy, pr. 1977

Storyville, pr. 1977, revised pr. 1979 (music by Mildred Kayden)

Sepia Star: Or, Chocolate Comes to the Cotton Club, pr. 1977 (lyrics; music by Kayden)

Michael, pr. 1978

Leavings, pr. 1980

Steve and Velma, pr. 1980

A Sunday Afternoon, pr. 1989 (with Marshall Borden)

I Think It’s Going to Turn Out Fine, pr. 1990

American Griot, pr. 1991 (with Idris Ackamoor)

Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam, pr., pb. 1991

Boy X Man, pr. 1995

Mtumi X, pr. 2000

Long Fiction:

The Reluctant Rapist, 1973


Night of the Beast, 1971

The Ritual Masters, 1972


To Raise the Dead and Foretell the Future, 1971

Edited Texts:

New Plays from the Black Theatre, 1969 (with introduction)

The New Lafayette Theater Presents: Plays with Aesthetic Comments by Six Black Playwrights, 1974 (with introduction)


The Hungered Ones: Early Writings, 1971 (stories and essays)


Ed Bullins is one of the outstanding black dramatists in the United States. He was born in 1935 in a black ghetto in Philadelphia. As a young child, he was an excellent student at a white grade school, but after his transfer to an inner-city junior high school, he joined a gang and became a “street nigger,” as he termed it. He dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Navy in 1952, where he remained for three years. In 1958, he moved to California and, after earning a general equivalency diploma, went to Los Angeles City College part time in 1961. His move to San Francisco a few years later was the catalyst for both his black activist period and his playwriting, which were deeply connected.{$I[AN]9810001413}{$I[A]Bullins, Ed}{$S[A]Bass, Kingsley B., Jr.;Bullins, Ed}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bullins, Ed}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Bullins, Ed}{$I[tim]1935;Bullins, Ed}

Between 1965 and 1967, when Bullins left San Francisco, he wrote a dozen short plays, which fell into two major categories, black revolutionary plays and plays of black contemporary life. Dialect Determinism: Or, The Rally is an example of the former in its emphasis on raising the black consciousness. Clara’s Ole Man is a naturalistic slice of ghetto life. In all these plays, Bullins generates the conflict through depicting blacks who have accepted the white view of success and denied their origins and culture in the process.

During these years, Bullins and Malcolm X founded Black House, a cultural and political institution associated with the Black Panther Party. Bullins left the party in 1967, after Eldridge Cleaver had decided to join with white radicals. In 1968, after Bullins was brought to New York as playwright-in-residence at the New Lafayette Theater, a trio of his plays, including The Electronic Nigger and Clara’s Ole Man, was produced. He was awarded the Vernon Rice Award, which resulted in his selection as guest editor of a black theater issue of Drama Review in the summer of 1968.

An important aspect of Bullins’s career at the New Lafayette was his work on a proposed group of twenty plays, which he called the Twentieth Century Cycle. The plays were to depict the lives of several young men growing up on a ghetto street in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He produced the first play, In the Wine Time, in 1968; it features a favorite Bullins device, also found in Clara’s Ole Man: an extended bout of wine-drinking ending in verbal and physical violence. The New Lafayette continued to produce Bullins’s plays until it closed for lack of funds in 1973.

Perhaps one of Bullins’s greatest critical successes was the 1974-1975 production of The Taking of Miss Janie, which received both the Obie Award and the Drama Critics Circle Award for the Best American Play. It is a long one-act play depicting a past and a possible repeat rape of a white woman by a black man. Using a prologue, epilogue, and flashback, Bullins uses the relationship of those two people as a means of exploring black-white relationships in the United States. The play is powerful, violent, and personal as well as social, and the elements of theatrical experimentation contribute to the overall impact.

In 1976, Bullins saw four new productions of his plays, received a second Guggenheim grant, and began supervising the New York Shakespeare Festival’s playwriting workshop. Three of the new plays deal with historical black women who have taken on mythic qualities: poets Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Terry and prisoner Joanne Little. Home Boy is fifth in the Twentieth Century Cycle and reveals Bullins’s increasing preoccupation with music.

In Bullins’s later work, he focuses less on black-white issues and more on the everyday situations of black life. In Daddy, the sixth play of the cycle, the musician-father figure tries to come to some understanding with the wife and children he left behind years earlier. He comes to realize that manhood is defined through the family and not through sexual conquests, a theme that runs through many of Bullins’s plays. After 1977, new plays by Bullins appeared less frequently on New York stages.

Bullins’s Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam, produced in 1991, extends his vision into an imaginary future to depict the former Black Panther leader down and out in the wake of a black revolution. In Boy X Man (the “X” means “times,” as in an equation), produced in 1995, Bullins constructs a memory play in which a young man’s return to attend his mother’s funeral prompts him to remember his boyhood with his mother and her “friend,” who raised him as a son.

From his revolutionary origins, Ed Bullins matured into a black dramatist of power and vision who explores the inner as well as the outer forces that keep black people in the United States from realizing their potential and their freedom. He is regarded as an exceptional craftsman who creates tough, vivid characters and who has an excellent ear for the language of the ghetto. He has an understanding and acceptance of these characters, many of whom are based on biographical elements in his life. Bullins is prolific and his work uneven, yet at his best, in such plays as Clara’s Ole Man and The Taking of Miss Janie, he is a writer of penetrating and unflinching honesty.

BibliographyBigsby, C. W. E. The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. A strong chapter, “Black Drama: The Public Voice,” includes a protracted discussion of Bullins’s work as “a moving spirit behind the founding of another black theatre institution, the New Lafayette Theatre.” Index.DeGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. After writing more than fifty plays, Bullins still admires Samuel Beckett and still deals with the theme of “the breakdown of communications among loved ones, and misunderstanding among good intentions.” Contains an excellent update of his activities and a strong discussion of the themes of rape in his work.Hay, Samuel A. Ed Bullins: A Literary Biography. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. Despite the title, Hay’s “biography” contains few biographical details and really focuses on Bullins’s many (more than one hundred) dramas, which he examines in some detail. The book, which was written with Bullins’s approval, provides readers with the social, political, and intellectual context in which the plays were written. Hay includes an exhaustive bibliography, which helps to resolve some issues about the dates the plays were written, produced, and published. It is the only full-length treatment of Bullins’s work.Hay, Samuel A. “Structural Elements in Ed Bullins’s Plays.” In The Theater of Black Americans, edited by Errol Hill. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. Examines structural consistencies in The Duplex but adds valuable comments on earlier works. Begins with Walter Kerr’s review, comparing his remarks with Bullins’s structural elements, such as “desultory conversation,” “unplanned and casual action,” and “frequently disconnected dialogue.” Compares Bullins’s work with Anton Chekhov’s Tri Sestry (pr., pb. 1901; Three Sisters, 1920).Herman, William. Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. A long chapter on Bullins, “The People in This Play Are Black,” details his major plays to 1984. Good biographical sketch of Bullins’s New Lafayette connections, including his editorship of Black Theatre, the theater company’s journal.Sanders, Leslie Catherine. The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Sanders devotes a lengthy chapter of the book to Bullins. The focus is on Bullins’s work for the New Lafayette productions in New York and on some of his major plays: The Taking of Miss Janie, A Son, Come Home, The Electronic Nigger, In the Wine Time, Goin’ a Buffalo, and Clara’s Ole Man.Williams, Mance. Black Theatre in the 1960’s and 1970’s: A Historical-Critical Analysis of the Movement. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. By concentrating on theater movements rather than on the playwright, this study underlines Bullins’s strong administrative and inspirational contributions to the African American theater experience. Includes discussion of his literary style, use of music, views on street theater, and relationship with the New Lafayette Theater. Index and bibliography.
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