Ed Bullins’ “The Fabulous Miss Marie,” starring Tonya Pinkins and Roscoe Orman, takes final bow this weekend! Tickets Available!
By Bernice Elizabeth Green
The 1960’s for Black Americans is alive and well on and off Broadway in three different productions, but it’s “The Fabulous Miss Marie,” directed by Woodie King, Jr. we wanted to see first. Pioneer playwright Ed Bullins’ 1971 classic is graced with Tony Award-winning actress Ms. Tonya Pinkins. The play continues its limited-run engagement at the Castillo Theater, 543 West 42nd Street, through this Sunday, May 18.
“The Fabulous Miss Marie,” set during a three-day holiday party at the Los Angeles home of Marie and Bill Horton (Ms. Pinkins and Roscoe Orman), in the early 1960s, takes place against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and on the eve of the Watts Rebellion. Most of the play’s characters, however, are unconcerned about … or tripping too much to watch or care about … the real-life turbulence playing out on the television screen (volume down). They party like its 1999: fight, romance, drink, smoke, joke, argue, dance.
Some critics have painted a blurry picture of “Miss Marie”, the play and the title character, as a kind of adults-gone-buck-wild raunchily led by a screwball of a woman who doesn’t believe in monogamy. Clips from a porno film open the play. (Spoiler alert: “Miss Marie” is not for children.) At least one writer has voiced concern even about Mr. Orman, currently in his 40th year of playing Gordon on PBS’ “Sesame Street” kid show, acting in the play at all. Others can’t figure out what to make of these characters, but manage to give Bullins his due as a genius. Those who connect this work to the remnants of slavery and struggle may be moving in the right direction. Bullins characters, particularly the Hortons, are not laughing to keep from crying; they are crying because they are laughing and loving so hard, while taking a 3-day break from the world moving around them.
The secret to understanding … and appreciating … “Miss Marie” is understanding how the Movement factored into Mr. Bullins’ work, when he started writing plays around the same period of time that “Miss Marie” is set in. Not only was Mr. Bullins focussed on what was happening during that time, as Minister of Black Culture for the Black Panthers, he was a principal in the Black Political Movement of that day. When he saw Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman” on Broadway in 1964, Bullins traded his Minister’s role for the creative writing ministry and joined the Black Arts Movement, which was co-founded by Baraka.
He liked the fact that Baraka (Leroi Jones, back then) told the story of the black experience – although fictional in the case of “Dutchman” – in the black “voice.” Plain talk, unique-to-black experiences, Keeping it real. Not everyone, a Monolithic Negro.
And these BAM writers/artists started catching up with Coltrane, Mingus, Monk, Miles of the music world to break free of the chains and jam on telling Black stories, and Black paens to pain and love in all of its ethnic aspects.
But the 60’s was a time of challenging the conventional, the mainstream and the traditional: “Miss Marie” – a former showgirl and Bill, a parking lot attendant (he has a job!) – are more than characters, they represent something else.
And not everybody, particularly in the Black Arts Movement, wanted to be an integrationist. Or battle for integration.
These are black people, doing what they want to do, how they want to do it. Miss Marie and her milieu are just one aspect of the black experience a few months to a year before the Watts riots turned up the flame and several years away from Aretha Franklin’s Respect (1968) and Gil-Scott Heron’s 1971 poem-song “The Revolution Shall Not be Televised” and, also in 1971, a television network’s good sense to cancel after three years the fantastical representation of black life that was “Julia” (starring Diahann Carroll, who managed to triumph in the role).
Perhaps Bullins didn’t have any of this in mind. But the play, weighed down by one or two character studies that could have been omitted entirely, is about rebellion, challenge and, like the Black Arts Movement itself, people (artists?) tired of being tired, defined, studied, judged; they are ready to do their thing.
It’s as much to do with finding expression, taking the masks off, and challenging “mores” and restrictions. Miss Marie, as depicted by Bullins, is regal – she owns her space, just like Miss Pinkins owns this stage — even when sometimes upstaged by a cool Mr. Orman. (Of note, the playwright’s mother’s name is Bertha Marie Queen Bullins.)
A final note on Miss Pinkins and Mr. Orman: they inhabit their roles. Unfortunately, this may be one of the last opportunities to see two great actors portray perfectly two imperfect characters who tell us something about ourselves, our excesses and our quests for personal freedoms.
The other two productions that touch on the 60’s are: A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway and Baraka’s Dutchman – the play that started it all for Ed Bullins and which is currently celebrating its 60th year – showing uptown in Harlem.
The cast also includes: Toccarra Cash, Michael Chenevert, Ugo Chukwu, Aaliyah, Habeeb, Beethovan Oden, G. Alverez Reid, Ashley C. Turner and Brittany N. Williams.
Considered one of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the Black Arts Movement, Mr. Bullins is a winner of the prestigious NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award and an OBIE Award. He has greatly influenced American theatre, especially Black theatre. He is the author of more than 100 plays that have been produced throughout the United States and Europe. Among many other honors, Bullins has won three Off-Broadway Awards for distinguished playwriting and several prestigious Guggenheim and Rockefeller playwriting grants. For “The Fabulous Miss Marie” ticket information contact: castillo.org or by phone at (212) 941-5800. Show times are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 PM, Saturday at 2 PM and 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. For more information visit: newfederaltheatre.com.