Ed Bullins, Leading Playwright of the Black Arts Movement, Dies at 86

Ed Bollins, who was among the most important black playwrights of the 20th century and a leading voice in the black arts movement in the 1960s and 1970s, died Saturday at his home in Roxbury, Massachusetts, aged 86.

His wife, Marva Sparks, said the cause was complications from dementia.

Over the 55 years of work in which he has produced nearly 100 plays, Mr. Bollins has sought to reflect the dark urban experience unmitigated by the expectations of traditional theater. Most of his work has appeared in black theaters in Harlem and Oakland, California, perhaps for this reason he never reached the heights of acclaim that received peers such as August Wilson, whose plays appeared on Broadway and were adapted for the screen (and who is often credited with Mr. Bollins as an influence).

That was fine with Mr. Bollins. He has often said that he wrote not for middle-class or white audiences, but for the strugglers, hustlers, and quiet sufferers who sought to capture their suffering in such intense works as “In the Wine Time” (1968) and “The Take of Miss Janie” (1975).

“He was able to get the grassroots to come to his plays,” writer Ismail Reid said in an interview. “He was a black playwright who spoke about the values ​​of the urban experience. Some of these people may have never seen a play before.”

Although Mr. Bollins was a keen student of white playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, he rejected many of their conventions, following a loose and fast style that relied equally on avant-garde jazz and television—two formats he felt put him closer to the record of his intended audience.

It received three Obie Awards and two Guggenheim grants, and in 1975 the New York Drama Critics Circle named “The Take of Miss Janie” as the best American play of that year.

Not everyone was fascinated by his work. Some critics, including some in the black press, believe that he focused too heavily on the violence and criminality he saw in working-class black lives, and reflected them very brutally—”The Taking of Miss Janie”, for example, which opens and concludes with a rape scene.

But most critics, especially in the establishment, have come to respect Mr. Bollins as an artist who was passionately true to his source material and meticulous enough in his vision to avoid becoming dogma.

“He tackled topics that were on the surface very specific to Black’s experience,” playwright Richard Wesley said in an interview. “But Ed was also very committed to showing the humanity of his characters, and in doing so made it accessible to audiences outside the black community.”

Edward Arte Bollins was born on July 7, 1935 in Philadelphia and raised on the North Side of the city. His father, Edward Bullins, left home when Ed was still a young child, and was raised by his mother, Bertha Marie (Queen) Bollins, who worked for the city government.

Although he did well in school, he gravitated towards the harsh street life of the North Side. He joined a gang, lost two of his front teeth in one fight and was stabbed in the heart during another fight.

He left school in 1952 and joined the Navy. He served for most of the next three years as a missionary aboard the aircraft carrier Midway, where he won the lightweight boxing championship.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1955, and three years later, he moved to Los Angeles. He attended night school for a high school equivalency diploma, then attended City College of Los Angeles, where he founded a magazine, Citadel, about which he wrote short stories.

In 1962 he married the poet Pat Cox. She accused him of threatening her with violence, and they divorced in 1966. (She later married and took the surname Parker).

Mr. Bollins’ subsequent marriage to Trixie Bollins ended in divorce. With his third wife, he is survived by his sons Ronald and Sun Ra; his daughters, Diane Bollins, Patricia Auden and Catherine Romm; And many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Four other children died before him: Amina, Darlene, Donald and Eddie Jr.

Concerned and unhappy with his work in Los Angeles, in 1964 Mr. Bollins moved to San Francisco, where he became involved in a growing community of black writers. He also switched from writing prose to writing plays—partly, he said, because he was lazy, but also because he felt theater gave him more direct access to Black’s everyday experience.

His first play, How Do You Do, an absurd one-act encounter between a middle-class black couple and a working-class black man, was produced in 1965, to positive reviews. But he remained unsure of his decision to write plays until a few months later, when he saw a double production of “The Dutchman” and “The Slave,” two plays by Amir Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, a prominent figure in the black arts movement.

“I said to myself, I have to be on the right track,” Mr. Bollins told The New Yorker in 1973. “I could see that an experienced playwright like Jones was dealing with the same qualities and conditions of black life that moved me.”

The Black Arts movement, then primarily an East Coast phenomenon, was a loose affiliation of novelists, playwrights, and poets whose work sought to reflect the modern black experience on its own terms—written and produced by blacks in black spaces for black audiences.

Mr. Bollins has found his community, and through it, he has found his voice. He joined a circle of Bay Area writers, actors, and activists, who began performing his work in bars and cafes.

Among them was Eldridge Cleaver, who, after his release from prison in 1966, used some of the proceeds from his memoir Soul on Ice to found Black House, an arts and community center in San Francisco, of which Mr. Resident artist.

The Black House also became the main city headquarters of the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Mr. Bollins became the party’s Secretary of Culture.

But his role in the Black Panther did not last long. The party, in its view at least, saw art only as a weapon, and resented Mr. Seale’s insistence that he create didactic plays, often explicitly Marxist. He was also frustrated by the party’s interest in building an alliance with extremist white allies, when what it sought was a movement completely independent of white culture.

“I have no Christian motive,” he told the New York Times in 1975. “Every other street corner has someone to tell you that Christ or Mao is the answer. You can take whatever name you want and be saved by it. If you’re part of some movement and it fulfills you, that’s great, but I like to look at them all.”

He left the party in late 1966, just before the Black House closed down.

Mr. Bollins considered moving to Europe or South America, but changed his mind when Robert Macbeth, founder of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem, invited him to be the artist-in-residence.

He arrived in New York in 1967, and the next six years of work, mostly at the New Lafayette Theatre, marked the climax of his career. The theater was a complete package: a 14-member acting troupe, 14 musicians, several playwrights and directors, and an affiliated art gallery, Weusi Artist Collective, which produced sets.

Mr. Bollins also led workshops for aspiring playwrights, many of whom, like Mr. Wesley, became important voices among the next generation of black theater artists.

A year after arriving, he completed “In the Wine Time”, his first full-length play and the first in a series called “Twentieth Century Cycle” – 20 plays that tell the story of urban life in the post-war period through a group of friends. In 1971 he won his first Obie Award for her roles in “The Fabulous Miss Marie” and “In New England Winter”.

He left the New Lafayette Theater in 1973, shortly before it closed due to lack of funding. His work appeared in the 1970s at the New Federal Theatre, La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, Public Theater and other venues.

In 1972, he got into a war of words with the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, which was showing his play “The Duplex”. Although he initially supported the production, he later said in an interview that the play’s “original black intentions” had been “thwarted” and “its artistic integrity overcome”, turning it into a “fantastic show”.

He traded attacks with producer, Jules Irving, and director Gilbert Moses, in the New York Times and elsewhere, but eventually the play continued. It received mixed reviews.

That episode, fair or not, gave Mr. Bullins a reputation for his hard work, one of the reasons he cited for returning to the West Coast in the 1980s. He continued to write plays, but also produced works for others, including Mr. Read, at Auckland’s Bollins Memorial Theatre, named after his son Eddie Jr., who died in a car accident in 1978.

Mr. Bollins also went back to school. He received his BA in English from the San Francisco campus of Antioch University in 1989, and his MA in Playwriting from San Francisco State University in 1994.

The following year he moved to Boston, where he became a professor in the Department of Theater at Northeastern University. Retired in 2012.

By then, he had changed his mind about his longtime audience, in large part because he and others in the Black Arts movement had succeeded in their mission to build a black cultural canon.

“Of course black writers can write for all audiences,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “My feeling is that the question of whether black theater should appeal to whites was more correct a decade ago. Since then, the black stage has streaked in all directions.”

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