Bullins and Me

The New Lafayette Theatre

An Excerpt from a memoir
By Robert Macbeth

macBeth  and bulllins

In the late 1950s, after several well-received performances in campus drama group productions, I left the City College of New York, eclectic studies in literature and philosophy and a position on famed basketball coach Nat Holman’s last team, to pursue an involvement in the professional theatre.

 I say "an involvement" because my reasons for leaving school had little to do with a career decision (gainful employment for “Negro” actors was rare) than with what could be called "academic ennui” fed by a growing interest in the socio-political revolution that was happening "down home" in the South—the bus integration rides, the sit-ins, the protest marches, and all that.

I am, I confess, a son of the southern “Diaspora”.  I was born in 1934 into the comparatively enlightened and largely self-sufficient black community of Charleston, South Carolina; separate from but surrounded by the uncomfortable reality of the racial attitudes and practices of the America of the 1930s and 40s.

The Macbeth family name has been part of Charleston history for a number of generations.  As my elders used to tell it, "In 1861, just before the Civil War, a Macbeth was elected mayor of Charleston and that man was your great-great grandfather."  They also told stories of romance crossing racial boundaries, discovery, and condemnation, loss of fortune, banishment, and bitterness.  The family genealogy would make good material for a Frank Yerby novel.

On the other hand, to get to the central theme, Ed Bullins was born and raised in the depths of the Black community of South Philadelphia, the son of a different ghetto, so to speak.  No romantic mythology of historical importance, just the cold hard reality of sweating masses struggling for existence and humanity against seemingly insurmountable odds.

 Masses whose earthly comings and goings would be barely recorded, whose family names would have no resonance. But, in spite of those meager beginnings, Bullins too had a vested interest in the affairs of his home area and its people. And, in the early 1960s, the grassroots ghettoes and its struggling masses—the so-called "black unwashed"—were crying out for attention: "I am not a beast . . . an animal to be used by the plows of the world!" as one Ed Bullins character put it.

So, in the late 1950s, after a year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, two years of engineering school in New Jersey, and a four-year tour of Europe and Asia courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I left the City College of New York's Harlem campus and headed downtown toward Broadway to get involved in the art of theatre.

In those days, New York City was a true center of world theatre activity and the only place for a serious American theatre artist to be, the only place to study the art. No campus program could ever provide the expanse of choice and variety of exposure that was available. Theatre artists and teachers from all over the world were in New York City. The intellectual atmosphere was rich and stimulating.

 Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn were playing in Becket (alternating in the roles of Beckett and Henry), Paul Newman and Geraldine Page were doing Sweet Bird of Youth, George C. Scott and his wife Coleen Dewhurst were doing Anthony and Cleopatra at Joseph Papp’s fledgling Shakespeare Festival, and, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, had opened on Broadway to excellent reviews.

(Meanwhile, in Greensboro, North Carolina, students from North Carolina A & T staged the nation's first lunch counter sit-in to desegregate the local Woolworth's.)

 By this time, Ed Bullins had worked his way out of "The Bottom," as his Philadelphia neighborhood was affectionately called, crossed the country to the West Coast, and was taking college courses in Los Angeles. He speaks proudly of one of his classmates of that period, Cheston Everett's brother, Ronald, who would later become known as Maluana Ron Karenga and establish the celebration of "Kwaanza." 

I was pursuing my theatre education, enrolled in the biggest and best theatre university in the country; the professional theatre community of New York City, which prided itself on its connections with both the classics and the cutting edge.

 Stanislavski's "method" was the talk of the town and I was attracted to it. The "method" seemed to encourage the kind of Zen unity of self and work that I was looking for and I became a student of Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio and attended the Bobby Lewis / Harold Clurman seminars on Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre of that period (Clurman and Lewis had visited Russia in the 1930s).

 I also attended the Irwin Piscator seminars on the theatre style of the German director Bertolt Brecht, and British theatre teacher Philip Burton's Shakespearian theatre workshops at Circle in the Square.

Zen masters say that the way to enlightenment has many paths.  I studied voice and speech, dance and stage movement, and I read a lot. There were volumes to become acquainted with if I wanted to consider myself "well read" in theatre, and one had to be "well read" to study with the master teachers of that day.  So, I read.  And studied.  And trained.  And, most importantly, I went to see theatrical productions done.  All types and styles and nationalities of theatre. On Broadway and off.  I went everywhere, saw everything. I did scenes and monologues in classes. I pounded the pavement with my pictures, doing the business of being seen and making connections. And, I auditioned for acting jobs every chance I got. 

I was in my mid-twenties, in the talent pool with James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, and Billy Dee Williams. And, at one time or another, I was hired to understudy each of them. I spent six months in the original production of The Blacks in a cast that included Charles Gordone, Roscoe Lee Browne, Maya Angelou and Cecily Tyson.  I traveled to the 1962 World Theatre Festival in Paris with the Living Theatre Company of American avant-garde directors Julian Beck and Judith Malina.

 I got roles, both on and off Broadway, and some television work. But, what I was doing seemed detached and unimportant in the brimming national upheaval of the early 1960's. At that time, we were experiencing events like the Sunday morning bombing of a church in Birmingham Alabama and the deaths of four little girls in a Bible study class . . . No, I wouldn't find my Zen on Broadway.

Not long after that, I went into a kind of self-imposed exile from the theatre world.  I took a job in a bookstore and "went to the woodshed."  If I wanted to do work in the theatre, get some personal satisfaction and fulfillment from what I did, and feel that my work made a meaningful contribution to the struggle for freedom, justice, and humanity etc., I would have to create a theatre with that purpose.

It was as simple as that. And so I did. Which is an oversimplification, I admit, but, on that black day in 1965 when Malcolm X was murdered in Harlem—shot down by several black men while onstage giving a speech—I was only twenty blocks away, teaching acting workshops and planning for a theatre that I would call "The New Lafayette Theatre."  (The "old" Lafayette Theatre was a prominent showplace in Harlem during the 1920s and 30s that had featured names like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Rose McClendon, Charles Gilpin, the WPA Project, Orson Welles, John Houseman, et al.)

Ed Bullins was in Oakland, California, by then, working on the Black Arts West theatre project with a group that included Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. Two major plays had been written, and Ed was sending out copies to agents and potential producers. In a mystical sense, he was reaching out for me.

The actual Bullins/ Macbeth association began in Harlem in 1967.  I was about to open my first theatre and was in search of a new writer and a new play to kick things off. Harlem was bubbling with social, political, and cultural activity; in the throes of what was beginning to be called the "Black Revolution." 

To get some attention and attract an audience in that atmosphere, I was going to need a striking, controversial, dynamic piece of theatre. If at that time someone had asked me what kind of play I was looking for, I would have said, "I need something Ray Charles-Mahalia Jackson-Miles Davis-Aretha Franklin-Nina Simone-Curtis Mayfield-Jimi Hendrix-John Coltrane, arranged by Duke Ellington or Sun Ra."  I was searching for a creative inspiration. I might not be able to describe it clearly, but I knew I would feel it when I read it.

At this point, the mystical forces take charge. Ted Hoffman, a member of the faculty at the New York University School of the Arts and an old friend from my "downtown theatre" days, comes across a copy of Goin' a Buffalo by Ed Bullins.  Knowing of my search, he sends it to me. It had been shown around some, but the folks downtown had rejected it. I read it and knew immediately that I had found the writer I was looking for.

Goin' a Buffalo was a beautifully lyrical piece of theatre. It had vibrant characters, luminous dialogue, and a cool-jazz theatrical style. I was impressed.  But I could understand why the downtown theatre producers had passed on it.  The play is set in the colorful but sleazy world of the Los Angeles Sunset Strip, with a coterie of seemingly nihilistic street-hustlers as its cast of characters. They talk the talk and walk the walk; pimping and whoring, dealing and using, and making plans for some even bigger crime. As one character says, 

Man, we're a new breed, ya know. Renegades.  Rebels. There's no rules for us . . . we make them as we break them . . . This ain't a world that we built, so why should we try to fit in it? We have to' make it over the best we can . . . and we are the ones to do it. We are, man, we are!

And, as befitting their station, they speak a richly profane language that many would call "gutter talk." 

This is 1967, the dark ages as far as codes of acceptability are concerned.  In most circles, the lives of "underclass Blacks" were not considered a proper subject for "art."  And, profanity in public presentations was considered unacceptable regardless of its intentions. This was the mindset of many who were regular audience to cultural and arts events—they called themselves the "patrons" of the arts. Pseudo-intellectual and bourgeois, culturally imperialistic and pretentious, but they are the people who buy the tickets, and producers must consider ticket sales.

 "Who pays the piper calls the tune."

That's the downtown folks. Personally, I found the play's flashy characters, gaudy settings, and hip Miles Davis soundtrack to be theatrically exciting. To me, the boldly honest and poetically profane street language provided a perfect medium of expression for the desperate existentialist African Americans in this "gangsta-rap" play that Ed Bullins has subtitled "A Tragic Fantasy."  It was futuristic. I liked it and I was going to produce it. Though maybe not as my opener. For that, I felt I should have something more . . . "grass-roots."

Following the direction of the mystic forces that had brought us together, I contacted Bullins, introduced myself, told him about my plans, how much I liked Goin' a Buffalo, and asked if he had anything else I could read for consideration as an opening presentation.  He sends me a masterpiece.  In the Wine Time.  Baaad!!!

“Sho' u'm bad, hon-nee chile.  U'm forty hands across mah ches’ . . . Don't fear nuthin' . . . not God nor death. I got a tombstone min’ an' a graveyard disposition . . . U'm a bad mutha-fukkah an' I don' min’ dyin'.”

That is the voice of Cliff Dawson, the "Black Knight" of Derby Street, in the warmly nostalgic In the Wine Time, a drama set in Bullins' South Philadelphia neighborhood, the Bottom.

Let me tell you a little bit about my experience with the Cliff Dawsons of the world. I have been a practicing athlete all of my life.  I grew up in the urban South at a time when male athletic prowess was highly regarded, when athletic competition was a young man's means of establishing an identity in the larger world, among his peers and in the eyes of the adult community; an identity that could overcome social or economic class origins and sometimes even “race”. 

My sport was basketball. I have played it practically all my life. In school leagues, church leagues, in college, in the Air Force, and in pick-up games anywhere there was a hoop. I've played in pick-up games all over this country and I can say with no reservation that some of the most enjoyable basketball games that I have ever played in were pick-ups, on some ghetto court on the backside of nowhere, with or against men like Cliff Dawson; fun loving, irreverent men, with salty tongues who are not afraid of strangers; men of spirit, honor and humility, who maintain those basic qualities in the face of circumstances that turn lesser men into mad dogs.

They are men who can enjoy hard physical competition, without animosity, no matter what the outcome. They are not perfect, but they are men of conscience who can admit when they've done wrong. I have always had good feelings for the Cliff Dawson's of the world, regardless of their “race”, and I was very pleased to have found a play that celebrated their struggle. I would open my New Lafayette Theatre with In the Wine Time.

I sent Ed a contract and arranged for him to come to New York to participate in the development of things. Except for the group of actors that I was doing workshop with to form the core of my performing ensemble, I am creatively alone. In the collaborative mix of theatrical production, the director benefits greatly from a creative intimacy with the writer. Ed had let me know that he was interested in being involved in the productions of his plays and in the development of the theatre, so I could look forward to an active collaborative relationship. Artistically, things were looking very positive.

By the time Ed arrives in New York in the spring of 1967, I have completed a thirty thousand dollar renovation of the "old" Lafayette Theatre’s second floor rehearsal hall on 7th Avenue and 132nd Street.  To get some action going and test run the little theatre plant, I decided to put on two small-cast workshop productions:  Athol Fugard's Blood Knot and Ron Milner' s Who's Got His Own. My plan was to save Wine Time for a big opening that I could invite the major New York press to critique, but it would take some preparation. In the Wine Time calls for a large cast of characters, a multi-faceted setting, and complex lighting and sound capability. As far as casting was concerned, my actor's workshop was expanding, and I would soon have the talent pool I needed. The technical and design aspects would take more time.

Ed settled into the Harlem scene, and the New York scene, and the New York theatre scene, and the New York black theatre scene, and the New York black revolutionary theatre scene, and, as I recall, any other "scene"' that caught his fancy. He had decided to relocate, to leave Oakland and his membership in the now armed and dangerous Black Panther Party, and make New York his home base.  I guess New York seemed safer . . . and had more theatre.

Ed was now the first "writer in residence" at the New Lafayette and made attendance at my actor's workshop sessions a regular part of his schedule. (Writers benefit greatly from knowledge of actors and their work.) He was also at the theatre every day, assumed several administrative responsibilities (like typing up my re-writes of Ron Milner's play), and he was present to assist at every evening's performance, taking tickets, passing out programs, and such. We spent a great deal of time together, getting to know each other's thinking, preparing for our great conspiracies.

Yes, it's true. In the 1960s, Ed Bullins and I were co-conspirators. We were enemies of the State, as it were.  And, enemies of the State as it was.  Alabama, Mississippi, and South Africa, in particular. We were also enemies of the state of disarray that the Black community seemed to be in, of the state of cultural oppression that the Black artist found himself in, and of the state of confusion that the so called "Black Revolution" was being fought in.

 Ed Bullins and I were enemies of many states. And we swore, "on the sacred sliver of our people's splintered psychic powers" (a quote from The Psychic Pretenders), that we would use the weapons of our art—fabrication, pretense, and illusion—to engage and defeat our enemies. We would be Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a Devil Catchers quest.

 As Ed once said, "Art is a good disguise." 

So, the "Gold Dust Twins" tap-danced onto the Harlem cultural scene, "smooth as Silky Sullivan."  Our two experimental productions attracted a nice-sized audience and everyone was impressed by our renovation of the "old Lafayette" building, which was a well-known Harlem landmark.  The renovation had turned the unused hall into one of the most attractive "little theatres" in the city. Harlem hadn't seen anything like it in many years. Then, suddenly and “suspiciously”, after less than six months of existence, the theatre was consumed by fire.

Woodie King wrote this in the 1968 Summer Edition of The Drama Review,

“The New Lafayette Theatre burned down on January 31, 1968.  Three days earlier, Robert Macbeth, the director, had given permission to the Onyx Magazine staff to use the facilities for a book party for one of the most important yet controversial books ever published by a black writer, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. On hand to discuss the book were Roy Innis, Larry Neal, Preston Wilcox, Bill Strickland, Sylvester Leaks, and Charlie Russell. This panel attracted both militant and middle-class blacks to the theatre. The New Lafayette took on a new identity in Harlem. The fact that it was a theatre became secondary.  The community showed that it needed first a cultural center, a meeting place, to discuss its art, its politics, and its economics. Because of the importance of New Lafayette's new direction, many blacks in the Harlem community are questioning whether the fire was accidental.”

Bullins and I knew that the fire wasn't accidental. At the book party, a political argument between one of the panelists and a “militant” in the audience escalated into a fistfight between the militant and the panelist's henchmen. Before Ed or I could intervene, the militant was beaten up and thrown out of the theatre. The next night, the theatre went up in smoke.  It was a very big fire. Two-alarm. Visible for blocks.  It even made the six-o'-clock news on CBS. Fire Department inspectors said that there was strong evidence of arson.

Within a few days, we began to hear rumors that the victim of the "book party beating" had claimed responsibility for the fire. The grapevine also carried veiled warnings.  Sadly, the first big experience that Ed Bullins and I shared was not reading the reviews after the premier of Wine Time.  Our first big experience was standing together silently on Seventh Avenue, nearby "Bojangles" Robinson's "Tree of Hope", watching our hope go up in smoke. Our enemies had struck the first blow.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a rough year in American history. The New Lafayette Theatre was burned down in January.  Martin Luther King was murdered in April, and riots broke out in ghettos allover the country, including Harlem. In June, John Kennedy's brother Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate, was gunned down in California. The protest marches and demonstrations continued. People were being beaten and jailed, and sometimes shot and killed for protesting this or that. In Vietnam, death and destruction was the order of the day and thousands of young Americans were coming home in body bags. And, Richard Nixon was elected President.

 "The world was bleak, a savage wasteland stretching before us", Ed wrote in We Righteous Bombers. And, Marvin Gaye came out with the now classic album, What's Goin' On?

But there were also positive developments. Three Bullins short plays were chosen for production by the American Place Theatre (west 46th St., off-Broadway), and I was asked to direct. The production went well. The actors were inspired by the magic of Ed's writing and cast a lovely spell over the audiences. The major New York critics were impressed, and the plays won Ed his first of many playwriting awards: the prestigious Drama Critics Circle, Clarence Derwent Award.

Edith Oliver of The New Yorker Magazine said, "I have just heard a new and distinctly original voice. He deserves our praise for his honesty and insight." 

I also had good fortune.  I was awarded major Ford and Rockefeller Foundation grants. Enough money to get a new theatre space, re-build and equip it, hire the actors, and begin production of In the Wine Time.

And that's the history, at least up to the beginning. In December 1968, we opened In the Wine Time in a unique and well-equipped, three hundred seat renovation of the "old" Renaissance movie house at 137th street and Seventh Avenue, where I produced and directed a repertoire of Ed Bullins plays for the next four years. 

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