Ed Bullins, global theatre festival leader and icon of British Black Arts Movement, dies aged 86

Three times a winner of the Wole Soyinka award, he rewrites the playwright’s playbook as an international festival leader and a masterful director. Ed Bullins, a playwright and director with a prolific legacy, has…

Three times a winner of the Wole Soyinka award, he rewrites the playwright’s playbook as an international festival leader and a masterful director.

Ed Bullins, a playwright and director with a prolific legacy, has died at the age of 86. In recognition of his achievements, Bullins was twice awarded the Wole Soyinka prize for African theatre.

As a leading light in the Black Arts Movement, a groundbreaking group of dramatists who rewrote the playwright’s playbook, as well as as a leader of the international global theatre festival, the New York Pan African festival, Bullins’s work has influenced practitioners across many continents.

Born in Troodos, Crete, on 10 August 1931, Bullins studied at the University of Athens and moved to London in 1956. His play Clock Tower ran at London’s Young Vic, where he trained as an actor.

Bullins went on to make several significant theatre appearances, acting in other women’s plays, including Elevator Repair Service’s Tubular Bells, and in David Hare’s The Blue Room.

The New York Pan African festival, which began in 2008, is one of the premier cultural events of the country. The festival, which held its third edition last month, features work from across Africa and as far afield as Portugal, Australia and Russia.

Boswell Naismith, the director of African theatre and acting at Trinity Rep in Jamaica, said Bullins was a “unique stage and screen playwright”, who helped to expand the global scope of African theatre.

After the festival, where he directed the play On the Edge of Midnight, Bullins toured the US with the company Tentum. He directed two productions of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a work that he and Edwin Sanchez wrote together in the 1980s.

At a fringe festival earlier this year, Bullins described stage writing as “a particularly intractable business”. But he added that plays were “very interesting as evidence of thought, experience and experience”.

In a profile of Bullins in 2006, the US playwright and actor Teddy Moore described his former friend as “a giant among men”, “a masterful interpreter of the human condition” and a “monumental man”.

The young Venezuelan writer and actor Cecilia Belman said Bullins was “the noblest of our heroes. As a director he was brilliant, humble and inventive”. She also described his playing career as a “poster child for the recent four or five years in black theater that he managed – this early experience of black theatre was an important part of his psyche and work”.

In the 1980s, Bullins was associate director of the Broadhurst Theatre, where he directed Twelfth Night, Side Show and I’m Not Rappaport. He went on to direct plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and Macbeth at the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Bar None.

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