Playwright Ed Bullins died Nov. 13 at age 86 in Roxbury. A prominent voice in The Black Arts Movement, Bullins founded Roxbury Crossroads Theatre and was committed to being a Black artist who reflected Black life.
Born in Philadelphia, Bullins moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s, enrolling in creative writing programs. He won his first Drama Desk Award in 1968 for his trilogy play The Electronic N***** and Others. In the '70s, Bullins moved to New York, where he produced his plays off-Broadway and won an Obie Award in 1975 for The Taking of Miss Janie.
After topping off his undergraduate studies at Antioch University with a Master of Fine Arts degree from San Francisco State in 1994, Bullins arrived in Boston with an appointment as a professor of theater and a distinguished artist-in-residence at Northeastern University in 1995. He went on to found the Roxbury Crossroads Theatre in 2006. “Black folks wanted to be in a space and put their voices out there and say ‘I'm Black, I’m proud and these are my stories,'" said Jackie Davis, who was the theater's associate artistic director at the time. According to Davis, Bullins could have easily been an award-winning actor or a poet laureate, but he chose to put those stories on the stage.
Cliff Odle, playwright, actor and professor of theater at Bates College, credits Bullins’ work for today’s theater. “When I think of his legacy, I think of the Black Arts Movement. His works are so important when you think of its place in American theater history. We would not have the great work and playwrights we have today, like Suzan-Lori Parks and Lydia Diamond,” Odle said.
Among the numerous plays that Bullins wrote throughout his career, Odle said the one he would stage today would be Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam. “That is a strong reflection, a critique and condemnation of the aftermath of the '60s after the death of Newton, who gave a lot to the cause, only to be killed by an African American. That’s something that still resonates.”
Anton Dudley, a playwright, director and librettist for both musicals and opera, also acknowledges Bullins’ influence on the next generation of playwrights. Dudley worked with Bullins as part of Cherry Lane Theatre’s Mentor Project, and remembers him as someone who was “generous and intelligent and worldly and perceptive and fair and didn't impose himself on my play."
"I think we had the same kind of rage, and he made his rage into something productive, not something debilitating," Dudley continued. "That’s what I wanted to do.”
Dawn Meredith Simmons, founder and director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, met Bullins when she was working at the actors’ alliance StageSource. “Without folks like him, it would be harder for the rest of us. He’s a point of pride in the Black community and Black theater and in literary circles. He helped to diversify what makes Boston theater so interesting.”
Jacqui Parker, artistic director of Our Place Theatre Project and the founder of Boston's annual African American Theatre Festival, frequently collaborated with Bullins. She described him as “a ‘gangster’ in the theater world in the best possible way."
Among Bullins' many awards, he received two Guggenheim Fellowships as well as grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. But a common lament among Bullins’ colleagues is that he didn’t receive the exposure that his body of work deserved. Simmons’ advice to people who are just learning about Bullins is to “read his work, and read the work of his contemporaries, and wrestle with it."
"The work was of a time," Simmons continued. "Think about what has changed since these people were writing and fighting and grinding it out. Ask yourself, ‘has that much changed since they were written?’”
Davis added that anyone who isn’t familiar with Bullins is missing a bit of American history. “The conversations that he was having back in the '60s and '70s and '80s are the conversations that we are still having today,” she said. Though Bullins is immortalized by his body of work, Davis said, “there's a hole in my heart and in the world of Black theater right now. We're in mourning. I knew this day was coming, but you're just never ready for it.”