Bringing hot-button art to the public has never been easy. And if that art’s got a political message, well, then you’re really screwed. Odds are damned high that someone in power is going to have a serious problem with it.
Ed Bullins is all too familiar with this phenomenon. The acclaimed playwright has been having a whole lot of trouble getting his new theatre company, Roxbury Crossroads Theatre, off the ground. Now in its second year, the company is only just mounting its first full production, A Black Arts Drama Showcase.
“Why it’s taken us so long is I’ve been waiting for nonprofit approval,” Bullins tells me. “I submitted [my request] in January of this year, and they told me that it would take four months. I waited till six months, and then I called, and other people called, and we were told that it would take a year or more. I wonder if the theatre and this work is being profiled, you know?”
His suspicion isn’t unfounded. Bullins and his cohorts are at the root of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), a movement with close ties to the Black Panther Party. The BAM’s all about radical change for African-Americans, and one of few (if not the only) forms of theatre that can be described as militant. In 1964, Amiri Baraka wrote an essay on the subject so passionate and unhinged that neither the New York Times nor the Village Voice would go anywhere near it. “The Revolutionary Theatre must EXPOSE!” he declared. “Show up the insides of these humans, look into black skulls. Because they have been trained to hate. The Revolutionary Theatre must hate them for hating.”
Bullins got into the scene soon after Baraka penned his infamous diatribe, when as a young playwright in San Francisco he saw productions of Baraka’s plays. Soon, he found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the founders of the Black Panthers. Bullins’s first play, “How Do You Do,” ran at the Firehouse Repertory Theatre in 1965, the same year as Malcolm X’s assassination. Since then, he’s written over 50 plays produced around the globe and scored a couple of Obie Awards along the way.
Still, since the ’70s, BAM has fallen off the radar. Bullins sees the RCT as an arena to breathe new life into the movement. “It had sporadic beginnings and near endings,” he explains. “But at this late date, we are still writing.”
Hence the Black Arts Drama Showcase, which features five one-act plays—three oldies by Bullins (“How Do You Do,” “It Has No Choice” and “Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam,” co-written with Marvin X) and two lemony-fresh world premieres—“Who Is You? (A Question and Answer Drama)” by Baraka and “Dirty Hearts” by veteran BAM-ian poet Sonia Sanchez.
But will the movement’s message still fly today? Bullins stands by it. “There’s a saying, what goes around comes around. We feel that some of the older plays are as fresh as the newest plays. The Black Arts Movement has this ongoing philosophy that black artists should work in their community to raise the level of consciousness and to point out certain directions that a society should choose and take. That’s what the plays naturally do. Or try to do.”
That’s not to say that Bullins and his buddies have gone soft on us. These playwrights come from a generation that actually stood up and gave a shit about the state of affairs. Baraka’s latest offering, Bullins says, “deals with the questions of the modern day—the question of who gave you permission to blow up the world, for one.”
Luckily, Bullins hasn’t given up on us yet. And that’s saying a lot, considering the downward spiral in self-awareness that society has taken since the ’60s. Not to mention the current theatre scene, which mostly runs the gamut from shallow to obtuse. “I think it’s an opportunity for theatre,” he says. “There are 500 TV channels, and people are getting tired of looking at the same thing. So theatre—especially when it’s saying something and being provocative and even radical at times—can touch a nerve.”
Eat that, feds. You can deny the Roxbury Crossroads folks nonprofit status till pigs fly and Malcolm X rises from his grave, but they’ll still get a show mounted and a message out. Even so, without funding, it’s an uphill climb that’s been anything but easy. “I hope this doesn’t get me into Guantanamo,” Bullins remarks. “But we’re hoping that one day we’ll be free to do our art without restrictions. What can we do but wait? We can’t sue the government.”
“It’d be nice if you could,” I say. There’s a long pause on the other end of the phone.
“But then you’d have to win.”