In 1997, I had an opportunity to interview Ed Bullins, a prominent playwright of the Black Arts era. He was on the TCNJ campus for a production of his award-winning 1974 play, “The Taking of Miss Janie,” which Bullins has described as an allegory about race relations in the US. In a review of a 2008 revival of the the play, the New York Times said the message appears to be that, “The failure of the ideals of the ’60s, it seems, is just about everybody’s fault.”
The campus production was directed by fellow award-winning playwright Don Evans, who taught creative writing at TCNJ and Princeton University for three decades before his death in 2003. This interview was videotaped at the TCNJ campus studio. Perhaps this summer, I’ll digitize the video and post a clip of Bullins’ riveting reading at the end of this interview. In the meantime, here is a video clip from the play.
A Conversation with Ed Bullins
KP: Good afternoon, I’m Kim Pearson, Assistant Professor of Journalism at The College of New Jersey. We’re pleased to be having a few minutes to chat with Professor Ed Bullins from Northeastern University. He is best known as a major force in American theater over the last 30 years and a seminal force in black theater. His work includes such plays as “The Duplex” and “The Taking of Miss Janie,” which was performed here this weekend at The College of New Jersey. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Professor Bullins.
EB: You’re welcome.
KP: Well, “The Taking of Miss Janie” is a play about life in America during the 1960’s. Tell us a bit about Monty and Janie and the force behind the characters.
EB: Well, Monty and Janie, the two antagonistic characters in – particularly Miss Janie – antagonistic, yes, but a loving, friendly relationship up to a point – is actually a metaphor for race relations, group antagonism, conditions that happen between people and groups during the 60’s civil rights integrationists/black power era.
KP: What is it that you were saying about that period of time and those relationships?
EB: Well, each of the characters, Janie in her own way and Monty in his own way, were not realistic. Janie felt that she could use Monty as a surrogate symbol of friendship which only goes so far, a symbol of – for her liberalness.
KP: Okay —
EB: Monty, on the other hand, he wanted to complete the relationship sexually, and never made any bones about that he wanted into the system. And Janie withheld that from him until he took the opportunity some decade or so into their relationship where he took advantage of her by force, physically. Each of them have their own friends, each of them have their own acquaintances in the play, and they are two camps that clash frequently – ideologically, relationship-wise, and even at the end, physically. And so consequently the false pretenses of the liberal whites and the, I would say, false desires and expectations of integrationist minded – misinformed – or liberals, you know, those two characters personify those two extremes in society.
KP: In “Miss Janie” it isn’t only Monty, the integrationist character, who is disappointed but also Rick, the black nationalist character.
EB: Well, Rick is like the consciousness of some – some sense in the play. But, actually, if you scratch Rick, under Rick is Monty.
EB: You know, Monty you could say grew up to be O. J. Simpson – could have been O. J. Simpson, and Janie could have been O. J. Simpson’s wife, if Monty’s dreams had been fulfilled. But they weren’t. They weren’t, but Rick is in his embryonic stage of becoming a radical black nationalist who speaks out for his race and against the abuses that society has done to blacks. And so he has a strong voice, but he is not perfect either. No one is perfect in this story.
KP: In the program notes about the play the 60’s are described as a time of self-delusion and a time in which Americans lost their sense of identity. Is that your take on the 60’s?
EB: I didn’t write the program notes. I feel America, in a great sense, found a lot of their identity during the 60’s. From 1955 to 1965 was the Civil Rights movement. Of course, it’s a pivotal point, a watershed period which went on to make American what it has been for the last 30 years. Since that time America has been feeling better about itself increasingly. We haven’t had the type of huge social upheavals. It’s been a time of mending, a time of trying to get it together. And, of course, we’re not completely there, but there’s no threat on the horizon of huge, cataclysmic war – doesn’t seem to be. There doesn’t – I mean, long time prosperity – relatively long time prosperity first – you know, one of the few periods in the last hundred years. So, there’s a lot of good things, a lot of good things. Of course, there’s a lot of bad things too, but not to the degree where it looks like society might be torn apart and destroyed through, you know, clashing of whites and blacks and the withholding of human rights from a large mass of people.
KP: Many Americans are worried about race relations in light of such things as the O. J. Simpson trial, the Rodney King rebellion and other kinds of events – the rise of the militia movement, for example. You seem surprisingly optimistic.
EB: Sure, I mean, I think society has changed to a degree. Of course, we have those things that you mentioned, but I think they’re sort of a spice to keep the news media and other things fed, keep people concerned with these things. I mean, over the years they’re important, I guess, but they’re less important. You don’t have wholesale lynchings in the street or armed camps of people, you know, assaulting one another, killing one another. So, consequently, I think more importance publicly and media-wise is placed on those things than they deserve.
EB: I think the alarmists of our society play on those things. They put it on the 6 o’clock news and say, “Oh, yes, blacks might be crawling across the fence to get my daughter,” or “The white man is going to do this or do that.” No such thing. You know, I think it will be – it’s just the opposite of that.
KP: Twenty-five years ago you wrote about the role of black theater and talked about its mission being one of raising consciousness, altering consciousness for its audience. Could you talk a little bit about that, and talk about the role of black theater today?
EB: Alright. We who began in black theater in the mid 60’s into the 70’s, we felt like we were lending our energies, voices, artistic minds and everything else to the struggle for physical liberation called the Civil Right movement, then the Black Power movement, and so consequently we felt like it was very important to do – and to do that, to achieve that, we had to raise the consciousness of the, for lack of a better word, the black masses or whatever. Alright. Through television their consciousness has, if not raised, at least been put to sleep in a way with the Fox Network and the new minstrel shows and all that. So, consequently, it is questionable what is meant by now raising the consciousness of the people. So, you – So, the mission changes, the mission changes. It becomes doing art, doing culture as an adjunct to education and to understanding, to cultural identity, to cultural understanding about self worth. And so it changes our field. So, the work that we did, if we haven’t completed it, at least it’s been usurped by the mass media or put to sleep by educational TV or, you know, it left.
KP: What are you referring to when you talk about the “new minstrel shows”? And why do you call them that?
EB: The Wayans [Brothers], the stereotypes, the caricatures. You know, the same caricatures of the coons, the Sambos, the Jezebels, the mammies and all that. They’re just played outrageously to the mass audience. The minstrel show was a mass media a hundred years ago – a hundred and fifty years ago. Now, shows of that type are like the mass media minstrel show.
KP: Is there a role, then, for an art that would challenge or would get black audiences or black artists to understand the danger of that kind of stereotype?
EB: No, it’s entertainment. As long as it’s entertainment certain people seeking entertainment are going to look at it, so – this is a democracy. I mean, in a democracy – it’s dangerous having a democracy in that you can’t legislate all the time or control the choices that people will make.
KP: Do you feel that these kinds of shows are damaging?
EB: Damaging? I think so. I think they’re damaging. You have kids aspiring to be a Sambo, you know, to be this kind of figure that’s working on stereotypes and makes people laugh. You know, what kind of future is that for a black or any other kid?
KP: So what kind of arts – what kind of portrayal should there be?
EB: Should? I’m not dogmatic, so I wouldn’t say “should”. If I say “should”, it’d be all kinds of portrayals, all kinds of portrayals. You know –
KP: What would you rather see?
EB: What would I rather see? I would rather see truthful, realistic, believable, human, uplifting, responsible, challenging stuff.
KP: Are there works out there that fit that mission?
EB: Yes, of course, of course, but they’re sort of, many times, submerged or covered over by the, you know, the general low level of regular media stuff.
KP: What kind of works have you seen that you feel provide that kind of complexity and intelligence and truthfulness?
EB: I didn’t bring my list along. Let’s see if I can pull some out of my memory. There have been some. Let me think of – I can’t recall offhand, but there are some.
KP: Okay. In a recent –
EB: Oh, no, no, no-no –
EB: No, it would just muddy the water.
KP: Alright. In recent weeks there has been a considerable amount of controversy over a speech and some subsequent articles written by August Wilson, the Pulitzer- Prize-winning playwright whose plays, “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” –
EB: Okay, so, plays like that.
KP: Right, okay.
EB: I mean, but not exclusively like that. So, something that Danny Glover was in not so long ago, took place in South Africa – he and Alfre Woodard, and I can’t even pronounce the name of it. I forget the name of it, but it was really moving to me. On a South African family, he was a policeman, and he, at the beginning of this sort of rebellion. He stood up with his family against the racist, brutal South African regime, and his own people killed him because he was identified with the police forces. This was very moving to me, and I think it was a very, very – that was very on, you know, on, you know. Some other things, but I don’t have that list in the forefront of my mind.
EB: You see them every once in a while.
KP: I was mentioning August Wilson because, as you know, last year he gave a speech and published some subsequent articles in which he criticized the American theater establishment and called for funding for separate black theater. He was taken on by Robert Brustein, who is a well-known critic, and there was a discussion or debate that took place a couple of weeks ago in New York that’s received a lot of coverage in which they exchanged views. I was wondering, Brustein accused Wilson of being a separatist; Wilson talked about both the necessity of funding for black theater and seemed to be critical of the policy of colorblind casting; and I was wondering how you felt about – if you could talk a little about that controversy and tell me –
EB: Okay. It’s a historical problem…, I guess, on both sides. But Brustein, he headed the theater at Yale, alright, and he was fired and replaced by Lloyd –
KP: Lloyd Richards?
EB: Yeah, Lloyd Richards. Lloyd Richards took August Wilson under his wing and introduced him to the public through doing his plays. And so consequently that was followed by a series of very vicious attacks in the so-called critical pages of the New Republic by Brustein. Brustein was extremely resentful about what happened to him at Yale. Brustein hated Lloyd Richards for replacing him, and he was going to take out his spite and his venom on August Wilson, who became – who eclipsed him and became a major playwright through the efforts of Lloyd Richards. So, in Boston August Wilson was down at the Huntington, which is in Boston. Across the river, Brustein heads up the American Repertory Theater, rivals in the same place. Nothing good came out of – from the pen of Brustein in regard to August Wilson – just the opposite.
EB: Just the opposite. So, August, in defense, came out against the prejudicial practices the Brustein has been practicing for years. I remember 20 years ago we had a – he and I had a running battle in –
KP: You and Brustein?
EB: Yeah, in, you know – a minor running battle, writing letters, et cetera, et cetera, over my plays. John Simon also, who’s an ally of Brustein, and I have had some of these same battles 20 years ago. John Simon supports Brustein in saying how knowledgeable he is of what he says about black theater. When Brustein at that town hall conference confused Robert Hooks with one of the principals in the new Lafayette theater – and actually Robert Hooks was a rival through the Negro Ensemble Company of the new Lafayette theater. And some other missions of intelligence that Brustein made on that evening, and John Simon said, “Yes, Brustein, he’s knowledgeable, and he knows what he’s talking about,” but the man doesn’t know what he’s talking about, especially concerning black theater. So, there’s a history going on. Alright.
What do I believe in regard to August Wilson? Number one, I recently published an open letter to the New Yorker because I was mentioned in an article published by – written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It might seem that I was on the side of or being critical of August, but I’m not critical. August is a friend of mine. I believe in his work, and I believe in how he feels about black theater, black art, et cetera, et cetera. He’s – didn’t come out of nowhere. He was in community theater, black theater. He was doing my plays and other black playwrights year ago, you know. You can go to reactionaries like Shelby –
KP: Shelby Steele.
EB: Shelby Steele, who made his career out of writing about black theater before he turned right – and seen documented proof of some of that work. And, in any case, on the one hand, I side with – fully – with August Wilson as in regards to his defense against the prejudicial attacks by Brustein. As far as colorblind casting, it’s used like affirmative action. It’s used as a hoax and as a device for whites to get money – whites to get money. White theater – the Sharon Otts of the world –
EB: Sharon Otts, she used to work – she used to run the Berkeley Rep, now she’s up in Seattle. Then her model was played out across America. These regional theaters are saying, “Well, we want audience development,” and so …. They’ll have a couple of programs with some blacks or ship in Asians or some other population. Whether you use a tenth of the money and then they go on and keep the money and nothing is done. The black theater – and there is a number of theaters, you know, in each of the areas of the country – they’re starved because the minority money has gone to the white theaters. And the white theater have gone and grabbed all the actors that the black theater has developed for the last 30 years and given them one job and gone on about their business. And the money’s sucked up like affirmative action contractors. And where’s black theater? But, you know, still trying to live on the undernourished vine.
But, artistically and critically, outside of the economics and how the government and the Sharpies (?) practice the game before the money showed up, I’ve enjoyed some multicultural productions. The “Coriolanus” production at the New York Shakespeare Festival Joseph Papp’s theater did. I thought it was a wonderful production. “The Cherry Orchard” with Gloria Foster and Raul Julia and a black cast and a Hispanic cast, you know, I liked that. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” with Earle Hyman or – was it Earle Hyman? – and Gloria Foster and then – I enjoyed that, so I use it in my teaching and other things. I sometimes use colorblind casting, so it’s a device that can be used in an experimental sense or a sense to make a statement, but not completely disregard the ethnic believability and racial-specific truth of life.
And then, you know, don’t say that, you know, “Take this money and do great things in the black community,” when, if you’re white, you’re going to take the money and keep it, you know, and maybe even bring in another kind of black company, an African company, or some other kind. I mean, I think the African companies should be done, outside of Athol Fugard, also, but to do it at the expense of African-Americans all the time and then leave them high and dry without money, that’s another matter. I do not agree.
KP: Is the problem just that there isn’t enough support for theater anymore, and that makes it increasingly difficult to make sure that the money that’s there gets distributed fairly?
EB: Fairly? I mean, they’re gangsters. I mean, there’s nothing fair in gangsterism. I mean, they pack these boards and these panels. They divide up the money and say they’re doing something great for the arts. That’s not fair.
KP: Well, now, as opposed to 30 years ago, there’s an increasing number of wealthy African-Americans. Is there enough support for the arts coming from them and from other wealthy Americans of color?
EB: Well, the wealthy Americans of color, you know, they buy into the middle class and bourgeois system, and they feel that when they need some art, they’ll buy some art. And if it’s not properly art, they’re not worth it. So, I don’t expect too much help from them. I mean, because many times the artists and theaters is at odds on the values of these so-called people who make money — you know, black people who make money and say you should be given money. I mean, why should they give money to be criticized? I hope – I hope the black – well, the black theaters exist. Go down to North Carolina, Winston-Salem, from August 4th to 8th this coming year, and you’ll see 30, 40 more black theater companies from all over the world – I mean, all over the country – coming there, doing things. They survive, you know, I mean, I guess they exist like churches. They haven’t been able to stamp out black churches just because you burn them. I mean, they’re still coming at you. So, black theater would do more of that, and hopefully they’ll do more – they’ll learn to do more things in a marketing/business/fund-raising way to keep existing.
But, look, 30 years ago you didn’t have a NEA, a National Endowment for the Arts. That’s because in the art subsidies – the government arts subsidies – was killed off at the end of the Depression in 1938. The WPA, the Works Projects Administration is because the Helmses of then – right? – saw it was a threat. It put ideas in the black heads such as integration, such as voting, such as, “You’re as good as any other man or woman on the face of the planet.” You know, whether you be black, white, or whatever. And some of these same forces are in the NEA. The Republicans, wholesale, want to extinguish the arts. I mean, to them, their art is fine – the opera, the symphony, the ballet, the Metropolitan and one or two other institutional entities – and they don’t need the rest.
KP: Just to provide a little bit of historical background, can you talk about some of the contributions that black theater has made over the last 30 years to American theater and to popular culture? Some of the people that have come out of theater companies such as the Negro Ensemble Company?
EB: Well, I’d have to go back further than 30 years. Why don’t we go back to – well, we could go back further than that, but why don’t we go back – the only original and popular form of theater in America is the minstrels, and that was created caricaturing or stereotyping the black image, saying that blacks are not human enough to be full citizens or free. They’re following a chain of being that’s God up in heaven, the animals below. Blacks are below the whites and are like semi-human. And this was played out on stages by whites blacking their faces and acting like monkeys.
That was around the 1840’s when that arrived in America. I mean, it developed from the 1820’s. And that existed for the most part of the 19th century, and then blacks rebelled and took over the minstrels. They eclipsed the white players. And you say, “Why would they want to do that? Why would they want to play parts that was like negative images?” Because that’s the way, after they got out of slavery in 1865, they could feed their families and send their kids to school and earn enough for some property beside working 14/16 hour days all their life. So – but then they rebelled in the 1890’s. They started – they took off the black face. They began doing a type of show called the coon show. I know the negative images, but a coon show – mixed in with that was some uplift things too. They developed a chorus line of women that became the Rockettes later on. They, you know – the American musical form was taken from the British libretto and little else, some folk singing, and they transformed that into a form of theater called the musical theater, which is very much with us today. They revitalized the structure of theater by creating the blackout, where the lights would come on and then would go out, delineating the scenes.
And this show went into the 20’s, and it would help fuel the Harlem Renaissance – the musical period and the work of the Johnson brothers and Flournoy Miller and many of them with the politics of Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, that got sidetracked a bit in the 1930’s with the Depression, but then the government subsidized the arts through the Works Projects Administration, the WPA, and there was a black unit that did great work with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Theodore Ward and many others. But, some racist southern white senators stopped the program, just like they’re trying to stop the NEA now. So, this isn’t Europe. In Europe they have uniform cultures, you know, with a much lower percentage of minorities. And so consequently a country like Germany or some other country like that will have national theaters all over the country. That’s not – I don’t think if it’s possible, at least in this century, to have that in American because the blacks will be getting it, they’ll say, or the whites will be getting it, or somebody else will be getting it. It won’t be uniform, and consequently some senator or some government entity will come in and shut it down.
KP: In the time that we have left, could you tell me what your hopes are for – not only for American theater – but for the way that your work is going to be understood in the future, in American theater?
EB: Well, I don’t know if my work will be understood completely, not in this time, not that I’m saying that I’m so way out there or this total prophet or anything like that. But, some of my work is kind of harsh and upsetting, and people don’t want to be upset. I mean, they don’t want to understand it. They don’t wish to understand it.
EB: Because you don’t want to see what’s obvious and is truthful but is painful. Let me read something from a play of mine, if I may.
EB: Do we have time?
EB: Alright, this is a play called “Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam”. Much of the text was taken from the journals of a fellow playwright, Marvin X, but I took it and made a play out of it. And Marvin tells a story in this monologue. “Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam”, the play is taken from a book “New/Lost Plays” by Ed Bullins. And it goes like this:
“In 1984, I became addicted to crack cocaine. Many people, especially members of my family, found my addiction difficult to understand. ‘You’re too strong,’ they would say. ‘How could you become a weak, pitiful dope fiend?’ But I did.
“My addiction came in my 40th year, for many people a time of disillusionment with life, and certainly it was for me. I was burned out, tired of revolution, tired of family life, sex, and women, tired of working in the educational system, tired of the black middle class, the grass roots, tired of religious sectarianism, Christian and Muslim alike, tired! Maybe this is what happens when one lives too fast. You not only get burned out, but you run out of ideas. What mountain should I conquer next?
“And a voice came to me and said, ‘You shall become Sisyphus! You shall roll a rock up a mountain, and it shall fall to earth, and you shall begin again each day for eternity since you won’t figure out anything else to do, you big dummy!’ So, I was a sitting duck for an addiction.
“That is, a new addiction, especially when I became an entrepreneur and had large sums of cash on a daily basis. Yeah, I sold incense and perfume oils and lots of stuff on the corner at Market and Powell in San Francisco. I made a lot of quick, easy money. The money added to my problem because I hated making money. I actually felt guilty about it and had to do something with all that money I had.
“So, my friends, including my so-called Muslim brothers, introduced me to crack. I didn’t like sniffing cocaine. For one reason, my mind is naturally speedy, so I did not want anything to speed it up more. I wanted to slow down, relax.
“My thing was weed. I admit I abused weed because I smoked it from morning to night for over 20 years. My things was weed, wine, and women. I always said I wanted to die from an overdose of weed, wine, and women.
“But along came crack, and soon I had no desire for wine, weed, or women. With all my knowledge, I had forgotten the simple rules of life: For every blues, there is a happy song. Sing a happy song, it takes just the same energy as the blues.
“Even before my addiction to crack, why couldn’t I think of all the good in my life? Why couldn’t I sing a song of praise to Allah, my god, for the beautiful parents he had blessed me with, for my beautiful brothers and sisters, for the beautiful, intelligent woman I had had, for the most beautiful children any man could imagine? Why? Why? Why?
“Yes, I know now. Because I thought I was self-sufficient. I had sat and watched my friends smoking crack, but at first it didn’t interest me. I did not like they way they behaved. I’d come into the room, and they wouldn’t even look up and acknowledge my presence. They were all staring at whoever had the pipe.
“But finally, the devil caught me, only because I forgot Allah.
(in a keening voice)
“I lost —
behind the pipe.
I lost —
behind the pipe.
behind the pipe.
behind the pipe.
behind the pipe.
behind the pipe.
“Yes, crack sent me to the mental hospital four times. Many times I put crack in my pipe and took a big, 747 hit. I could feel death coming, feel my body surrounded by the strangest sensation. I would run to the window for air. I’d run outside for air. But after the moment of death had passed, I’d return to my room and continue smoking.
“Once, I accidentally cut my wrist, cut an artery. I dropped one of my pipes and grabbed at the broken pieces, cutting me critically, but I was unaware. I thought the bleeding would stop, but I didn’t. I found my backup pipe and fired up. My friend tried to get me to a hospital, but I thought the blood would stop. Dripping from my wrists, it didn’t. My new pipe became covered in blood. My dope had turned the color of blood. My clothes, the rug, the bed, the curtains were all covered with blood, but I didn’t stop. I kept on smoking. Finally, my friend got the hotel manager, and he came in with a baseball bat and forced me out the room. The paramedics came and took me to the hospital. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. After the emergency room crew stitched my wounds, I got the bus and returned to my room to finish smoking. Hell, I still had 60 bucks! Fuck it!”
I don’t think a lot of people are ready for that right now, maybe never will be in the next hundred years.
KP: But is seems to me that you think there is an important role for the artist in telling those kinds of difficult truths.
EB: Sure. That’s what we are sent here for. That’s what you get. You know, that’s why you get fed to the lions. You know – (laughs)
KP: So, as long as there is an Ed Bullins to tell these truths, then there’ll be an audience somewhere to listen?
KP: So, the point is to try to keep persistent?
EB: To do your work, yes.
KP: Okay, well, is it difficult, then – do you see a new generation of black artists or other artists coming along?
EB: Yes, there’s always a new generation, so far.
KP: Is there anyone whose work you’re watching in particular?
EB: In particular – I’m watching many people, hopefully.
KP: Well, I’m sure that as those artists are developing they will continue to look to you as a model, as a teacher, and as an inspiration. Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon and for sharing some of your work with us.
EB: Thank you.
copyright 2001. Kim Pearson and The College of New Jersey. All Rights