Ed Bullins, playwright of Black arts movement, dead at 86

Bullins, a leading Black playwright who helped embolden the 1960s and '70s stage scene, has reportedly died of dementia complications.

Ed Bullins, a leading playwright of the Black arts movement who helped embolden the 1960s and ’70s stage scene, has died at the age of 86. 

According to The New York Times, Bullins’ death on Saturday was confirmed by his wife, Marva Sparks, who noted the cause was complications of dementia. 

Black theater mainstay Ed Bullins is shown on the paperback cover of his 2006 book, titled “Ed Bullins: Twelves Plays and Selected Writings.” Bullins died Saturday at age 86. (Photo: Michigan Publishing/University of Michigan Press)

Born July 7, 1935 in Philadelphia, Bullins grew up in North Philly, where, despite being raised by a strong single mother, he was drawn to the street life. He reportedly lost two teeth in a fight and was stabbed during another. 

A Navy veteran, Bullins moved to Los Angeles not long after leaving the military and attended college. He then started writing, launching a magazine called Citadel, in which he penned short stories. 

He later moved to San Francisco, where his work was inspired by the vibrant Black arts community in Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. He became chief artist in residence of Black House, an arts facility created by Soul On Ice author Eldridge Cleaver, then was named the organization’s Minister of Culture. He ultimately left the party, invited to become the playwright-in-residence at the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem by its founder, Robert Macbeth.


Bullins produced nearly 100 plays over his 55-year career. His work primarily appeared in Black theaters across the nation, particularly in Harlem, New York and Oakland, California, winning him three Obie Awards and two Guggenheim grants. In 1975, one of Bullins’ seminal works, The Taking of Miss Janie, was proclaimed the best American play of the year by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. 

The esteemed playwright’s work has yet to reach the height of many of his peers, including the late August Wilson, whose work has been produced on Broadway and adapted for film. 

Writer Ishmael Reed told The New York Times Bullins “was able to get the grassroots to come to his plays,” calling him “a Black playwright who spoke to the values of the urban experience. Some of those people had probably never seen a play before.”

Critics noted that Bullins’ work was written for “strivers, hustlers and quiet sufferers.” He was most active in the late 1960s through the 1970s as part of the Black arts movement, in which artists resisted conventional Western influence and found new ways to present the Black experience in art.

“He tackled subjects that on the surface were very specific to the Black experience,” playwright Richard Wesley told The Times in an interview. “But Ed was also very much committed to showing the humanity of his characters, and in doing that he became accessible to audiences beyond the Black community.”

Bullins is survived by Sparks and his sons, Ronald and Sun Ra; his daughters, Diane Bullins, Patricia Oden and Catherine Room; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Four other children, Ameena, Darlene, Donald, and Eddie Jr., preceded him in death.

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