Musing Ed Bullins

An image of Ed Bullins standing in front of an orange painting and wearing a gray suit.

A titan of the American theatre, Ed Bullins, has died. He was 86. Many will wax poetic about his greatness as a leader of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, all of which are more than deserved. Ed Bullins believed in me, a 23-year old, and nurtured me to be a good artistic director, especially as a white leader of an organization with Mixed Blood’s ambitions.

In our first year, I obtained a manuscript of Ed’s play JoAnne, his version of the plight of Joan Little, a North Carolina inmate who was acquitted of murdering the prison guard who raped her. From his agent I procured permission to produce it, and, for the first time in Mixed Blood’s brief life, the playwright was going to come to see the production…and it was Ed Bullins!

It was the first of hundreds of Mixed Blood shows that Warren Bowles would do at Mixed Blood, in this case as director. It had a big cast that included Sharon Walton as JoAnne, Marion McClinton, Steve Yoakam, James Austin Williams, Terry Bellamy, Jim Cada, and many others. As I picked up Ed, who was 42 (seemingly aged at the time), I was excited to tell him about all the “improvements” we’d put into the script. (It is wholly inappropriate to change a word of a playwright’s creation, a lesson I learned that day.)

Ed pondered what I told him and nonverbally had to decide whether to ask me to take him back to the airport, to shut the production down, or to see how this white college kid had butchered an Ed Bullins masterpiece. He pulled out the biggest joint I’d ever seen, lit it up, and, thankfully, chose to take a peek.

While many in the cast had a hard time saying Ed’s words in good conscience, Ed loved what we had done. At that time his day job was in the PR department at The Public Theatre in the height of Joe Papp’s glory. Ed invited me to New York, introduced me to amazing legendary people, and took me to the Tony’s when The Public’s Runaways was up for several awards. For 2-3 years he schooled me on how a white producer can responsibly produce and promote a Black playwright’s work. (I’m still learning.)

Ed introduced me to Joe Papp, who made me “his Minneapolis guy.” If there was a show in Minnesota that might be of interest to The Public, I would get instructions to go see something, pick up tickets at the box office under the name of Joe Papp, and report back. That connection was invaluable, but, above all, I learned how to be a human adult from Ed Bullins. His son, Ed Bullins, Jr., had been killed while a pedestrian by a police car involved in a high-speed chase. It was a pain I’d never witnessed, a seething anger from which I learned, and a grace and vulnerability at which I marveled. (He sought $1 million and an all-white jury awarded him $5500.)

The list of people on whose shoulders my career has been allowed is a huge one. Ed Bullins’ influence will be felt (and taught) for decades to come. I am blessed to have been the beneficiary of his kindness, talent, wisdom, and attention, and, by proximity, so has Mixed Blood’s artists, audiences, staff, and board members.

– Jack Reuler