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  • Pageants of Propaganda:The Ritual Theatre of Ed Bullins
  • Sharyn Emery (bio)

In 1967, famed Black Arts Movement (BAM) playwright Ed Bullins made a decision. He left the radical San Francisco Black House—a collaborative project between artists like Bullins and the Black Panther political leadership—for New York City to write plays for the New Lafayette Theatre (NLT). According to Bullins, the Black Power movement’s scales had tipped away from art and toward political rhetoric; and so, with the Black House foundering, it was time to make a change. Robert Macbeth, director of the New Lafayette Theatre, invited Bullins to New York because “he didn’t have a playwright who wrote of the black urban situation in America.”1 The late 1960s were a time of confusion for Black Arts, Bullins remembers, and the early days of the NLT were heavily influenced by “civil rights activities, black revolutionary activity, the administration, [and] the atmosphere.”2 Because these influences were mainly negative according to the NLT, Bullins notes that the theatre evolved to synthesize a multiplicity of experiences and perspectives in response to those influences, and consequently, the NLT embraced ritual theatre.3 This move away from traditional, mainstream theatre was a move toward Black liberation and toward African cultural traditions. For Bullins at the NLT, challenging the Western theatrical hegemony could only be accomplished through ritual practices, which overturned both audience and critical expectations. In doing so, Bullins helped to create a space for other practitioners of Black ritual theatre (including his contemporary, the influential Barbara Ann Teer) and later theorists of ritual drama.4

In his studies of Black theatre, Paul Carter Harrison notes the critical influence of African cultural practices in ritual performances. He situates the general structure of Black ritual drama in “Kuntu forces—Song, Dance, and Drum—to capture the rhythms of that life, committing the community to a form of total engagement of body/spirit, thereby testifying to our continuation as an African people on this continent.”5 These forces, which Harrison in his later work refers to as “expressive strategies,” represent the “continuum of African memory throughout the Diaspora,” which then “binds, cleanses, and heals” all participants over the course of the ritual performance.6 Thus the modes of performance in ritual are not simply forgotten movements or ancient words; they are meant to represent a wide range [End Page 7] of Black experience in America, with the ultimate goal of self actualization.7 In Bullins’s work, rituals seek to embody this actualized self by employing an array of performative elements, including call and response, chanting, and invocations of spirits, memories, and ancestors. It is not merely the presence of black bodies onstage that engenders self actualization, as Harrison argues, but rather the use of these aforementioned performative elements to re-enact the struggles of daily life.8

Despite this robust theoretical underpinning, Adebayo Williams observes that rituals often have been cast as pointless, and criticized as a “meaningless exercise, a mundane routine.”9 Yet, in quoting Ake Hulkrantz, Williams contends that rituals are fixed routines that communities often turn to in times of crisis. At the same time, rituals both express and fulfill the needs and desires of those involved.10 This line of thought, when applied to Bullins’s plays, indicates that Black Arts Movement rituals are ceremonies for people in a constant state of crisis, who cannot find answers to that crisis in other art forms. As Bullins moved into using the ritual form, he carved out his own territory as an African American artist by reclaiming the ritual from the postcolonial trash heap. By performing rites for his selected audience members, he helped them to learn something about themselves by showing them who they were, or who they could be. This article will explore the ways that Bullins combined the foundational elements of African and African American ritual with the political aesthetics of his African American forebears—what Bullins critic Arlene Elder refers to as “the traditions of black oratory, narrative, street talk, mythology”—and brought forth a new drama that shocked, changed, and even comforted, while creating and sustaining a community of believers and inspiring the...


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