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Homage to African American poets

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times


Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet, author, and social activist, is just one of a handful of poets whom writer Wallace Bullock honors in his one-man dramatic presentation, “An Homage to our African American Poets.” Bullock will perform the piece at Pathways on Feb. 18 as part of the arts organization’s celebration of Black History Month.

The legendary Hughes was one of the earliest innovators of the art form called jazz poetry, which makes him a perfect fit for Bullock’s presentation, which will include recitations of poetry, as well as his own narrative and commentary.

“I want to show how these poets helped change American society,” says Bullock, “starting with the Negro spiritual that led to gospel music that led to the blues, and the role they played in jazz music as well. I’ll talk about how this poetry has influenced American life and American society. I’ll read full poems, and talk about their personal meaning to me.”

Among the other poets featured in the presentation are Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Margaret Walker, and Gil Scott-Heron. Bullock will read work by other poets as time allows, including poems by his uncle, Uriel H. Wallace. Bullock recalls his childhood when his parents, uncle, and other family members would gather around the table on Sundays reading poetry aloud. The repertoire could run from Shakespeare and the classics to contemporary poets.

“I’m a folklorist,” says Bullock. “I love oral presentations.” As a historian and scholar, Bullock hopes to demonstrate how the roots of today’s music relate back to early poets.

As well as writing and acting, Bullock taught high school English and directed school plays in Manhattan and the Bronx for 22 years. He was one of the founders of House of Tribes black box theater on the Lower East Side, where Wynton Marsalis performed regularly.

After retiring, Bullock moved to the Vineyard in 2012, and focused primarily on his writing. His first solo show, “A Taste of JFK, Malcolm and Adam Clayton Powell,” features some of the writer’s heroes. “They are three characters that I admired at different points in my life for different reasons,” he says. As well as reading from the three men’s speeches and writings, Bullock also talks about how each one had an impact on his politics. That piece was performed at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Bregamos Community Theater in New Haven, the University of California San Diego, and at the Sorbonne in Paris as part of the African Americans in Europe conference.

“An Homage to our African American Poets” will be presented as part of the African American studies program at U.C. San Diego in March.

Currently Bullock is working on his first novel which, he explains, “deals with the African American experience, primarily the black middle class.”

This month Pathways will also be featuring work by or about black artists.

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