Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Stripping Illusions and Mirroring Realities: Ed Bullins, the Absurdist

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

Stripping Illusions and Mirroring Realities: Ed Bullins, the Absurdist

Article excerpt

Though the African American1 theatre has been a reality in America for one hundred fifty years, it attained its special identity in the 1960s when Amiri Baraka (formerly Le Roi Jones)2 demanded a Theatre "about" African Americans, "with" African Americans, "for" African Americans, and "only" African Americans. African American theatre received its major impulses from the African American Cultural Revolution and its contemporary politics. As an ally of African American political movement, the major theme of African American drama in the 1960s was identity crisis. Protest is what characterized the majority of African American literature and drama of the 1960s: "The Revolutionary Theatre should force change, it should be change" (Baraka 1965, 4). Baraka's dictum crystallizes both the fundamental aim and the underlying strategy of the African American revolutionary theatre. The dramatists of this period sought to precipitate a new order of existence, a social change partly reflected by their radically different dramatic idiom. The rhetoric of this theatre was consciously intended to enable the audience to act decisively and to transform their lives and the society that oppresses them.

While most of the playwrights of the period, including Baraka, were still striving to establish themselves for Euro-Americans, Ed Bullins was one of the first innovative playwrights of the period to exclude them from his theatre completely. In an interview, Bullins (1969b, 14) insists that the African Americans "don't want to have a higher form of white art in black face." Bullins was concerned with bringing the experience of African Americans live on stage in a manner which forces the audience to confront its metaphorically ambiguous but politically explosive implications. Bullins began writing plays in 1965 during a volatile time when African American culture was exploding into an awareness of its artistic and political potentials. Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Bullins was one of the pioneers of the Black Theatre Movement3 in San Francisco. Later he settled down as a playwright-in-residence at the New Lafayette Theatre,4 founded in the year 1967 in Harlem.

Between 1965 and 1969, Bullins wrote about a dozen plays5 in two major styles: short consciousness-raising or revolutionary plays and plays about African American contemporary life. Bullins's plays define a constituting dialectic in the African American theatrical movement which emerged in the mid- 1960s. The new thrust has two branches: the "dialectic of change" and the "dialectic of experience." Essentially, the "dialectic of change" focuses on the political problems demanding a specific form of action. The "dialectic of experience" focuses on a more "realistic" picture of African American life in the context in which the problems continue to condition all experience. Bullins directs his works in the "dialectic of change" to alter the audience's actual experience, which leads inexorably to a recognition of the need for change.

Most of Bullins's works take the form of short satiric or agit-prop6 plays. The difference between these plays and the street theatre lies not in the message but in Bullins's way of involving the audience. Recognizing the different needs of an audience, Bullins involves the audience in an analytical process, leading to relatively unambiguous political perceptions. Rather than asserting the messages at the start of the plays, he develops a satiric setting before stripping away the masks and pretensions adopted by the audience in the real world.

While Bullins consistently directs his works toward the African American community, his works in the "dialectic of experience" inevitably involve the interaction of African Americans and Americans. Bullins suggests that each of these approaches reflects a perspective of experience actually present in contemporary American society and that any vision failing to take all of them into account will inevitably fall a victim to the dissociation of ideals and experience. …

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