Director Frank Pullen remembers vividly the day he realized the power of theater. He was in his mid-20s–he’s now 29–and was making the transition from actor and dancer to director while staging Bent, Martin Sherman’s play about the Nazi persecution of gays, at a community theater in his hometown of Grand Rapids. A few weeks after the play opened Pullen was walking down the street when a friend eagerly ran up to him.

“Over his heart was a tattoo of a pink triangle,” Pullen recalls. “He said, “That show really changed me as a person and made me proud of who I am.”‘ Pullen was struck speechless. “I was like, wow, that’s like, you know, wow.”

Ever since then, Pullen has been directing plays with a strong social message: In the Belly of the Beast, an angry look at prison life based on the memoir by Jack Henry Abbott; Steel Kiss, a searing account of gay bashing; and Robert Alexander’s heartbreaking docudrama Servant of the People!! The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party, which is currently running at the National Pastime Theater.

Pullen’s strong commitment to political theater attracts the sort of questions that no one asks of someone directing Neil Simon. He says the most common are: Are you gay or straight? and What nationality are you? Pullen is out, but his answer to the second question isn’t likely to satisfy anyone committed to identity politics.

“I am adopted. I have no idea who my biological parents were. So I’ve always asked the question back, “What do you think I am?’ And I’ve heard so many different combinations. My response is, “OK, if that’s what you think I am, that’s cool. I’ll be that for you.”‘

The answer sounds flip, but he’s learned that even race is in the eye of the beholder. In high school, Pullen says, white people thought he was white, “unless they didn’t like me, then I was black.” Blacks and Latinos assumed he was one of their own, unless they disliked him and “then I was white.”

Pullen’s ambiguous ethnic status gives him a well-balanced perspective on American society–he knows what it’s like to be taken both for white and black, oppressor and oppressed, member of the majority for whom the culture has been tailor-made and member of the minority for whom the mainstream culture has always seemed a bit alien. A similar perspective can also be found in Robert Alexander’s remarkably clear-eyed history of the Black Panther Party.

Neither praising nor burying Newton, Alexander’s play shows us in 120 relentlessly sad minutes how a gifted leader’s dreams are destroyed one by one, first by a paranoid white society–led by the FBI, which systematically harassed and killed off the party’s leaders–and later by his own inner demons and flaws.

“We still live in a very racist society,” Pullen says. “Walking down the street there are still people who call you names. People driving by in cars still scream out the window at me “Nigger!’ I’m like, OK, guess you made your decision. Did you want to add anything else? Puerto Rican? Chinese?”

Pullen grins but his eyes aren’t smiling.

Servant of the People!! The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM through June 30, at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets for all shows are $12; call 327-7077.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.