improvisational jamming: the process and production of personal problems
A detailed look at the long, fascinating history of Bill Gunn‘s experimental, groundbreaking soap opera.
It all began with an idea that to many seemed inconceivable.
In 1977, the United States Commission on Civil Rights published Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television, a report detailing the troublingly narrow possibilities for many to work in American television. Nearly 200 pages long, the report concluded what so many within the industry knew: “minorities and women—particularly minority women—continue to be underrepresented in dramatic programs and on the news and their portrayals continue to be stereotyped. Insofar as employment is concerned, they are underrepresented on local station work forces and are almost totally excluded from decision making positions.” Despite the culture shifting miniseries Roots, which aired on ABC in January that same year, and limited programming on public television, broadcasting remained a white space.
The 1970s had seen Shaft swagger across 42nd Street, Superfly cruise through Manhattan, and Foxy Brown declare that justice was imminent and she’d handle the revenge. In 1977, Window Dressing on the Set established that those opportunities, once available in Hollywood, were absent on television: the inequalities of American television were not created by occasional oversight, so much as they were embedded in the industry’s very structure, which strangled opportunities and propelled romantic white visions of American life.
Four years before Window Dressing on the Set was released, writers Ishmael Reed and Steve Cannon, along with the poet Joe Johnson, formed Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications Co., a small bicoastal publishing house. Francisco (1974), the debut novel by Alison Mills, an actress, singer, and star of the Emmy-nominated sitcom Julia, was their first release. Now out of print, Mills’s autobiographical tale cataloged the fraught and dangerous conditions for a black actress in the nation’s dream factories. Francisco marked what would become a longstanding connection between Reed, Cannon, and Black Hollywood. Two years after Francisco was published, Reed, inspired by artist friends calling him and recounting their own struggles, came up with an idea: create a vision of everyday black life for television. As the writer told an audience at the University of Nevada in the spring of 1977, “everybody’s got personal problems.” Working with the actor/producer/playwright Walter Cotton and Cannon, Reed began to develop what would become the first self-described black soap opera written, acted, and produced by black artists.
Before it was pitched to various networks as a television show, Personal Problems was an episodic radio drama about a black middle-class family living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The first episode was funded by small grants from the New York State Council of the Arts, the NEA, and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and it was recorded in Cannon’s apartment. There were only three actors: Walter Cotton, a Buffalo-born stage actor who was one of the original cast members of the New Heritage Theater Company in Harlem; Vertamae Grosvenor, an actress, writer, and culinary anthropologist (author of the classic Vibration Cooking: or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl) who had previously toured as a singer with Sun Ra’s Arkestra; and Jim Wright, a retired actor with an illustrious career that included a stint at the Cotton Club, performances in the Federal Theater Project, and the lead performance as Dollar Bill Burton in William Alexander’s Souls of Sin (1949). Using a treatment by Reed as the foundation, the three recorded a series of improvised scenes onto tape. These recordings were then transcribed, edited, and re-performed. The “script” that developed focused on the minor rhetorical battles waged between Johnnie Mae Brown (Grosvenor), her husband, Charles (Cotton), and her father-in-law, Father Brown (Wright). This was a bottom-up production where writing was sculpted through improvisatory performance.
The film confounded the lines distinguishing documentary and fiction, and in doing so undercut the widely held misapprenhension that black art was sociological first and aesthetic second.
The first episode never left the kitchen of the Browns’ apartment and over the course of 30 minutes, this initial episode (at one time titled “What Time Did You Get in Last Night?”) charted the dull hum that persists between people who share their life together, but ultimately find themselves neither happy nor unhappy. The absurd realities of ordinary life are braided with humor, and topics shift as quickly as attitudes sway. Grounded in a kind of love that only develops over time, it is clear that the arguments between Johnnie Mae and Charles have played out before and they will likely play out again. Each word seems to carry a history of interactions, as the Browns discuss coffee, the possibility of Johnnie Mae’s brother Bubba coming to stay (a plot point returned to in the video version), and the peculiar way that Charles’s favorite film, The Guns of Navarone (1961), is constantly being broadcast on the television. Personal Problems zoomed in to extrapolate meaning in the mundane and emphasize that people often express as much in what is not said as they do in explicit action.
Word about Personal Problems began to circulate in the press throughout 1977 and before the show made it to the airwaves it was introduced in a new line of cassette tapes produced by Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications Co. The series of tapes would go on to feature readings and interviews with prominent writers including Al Young, Ntozake Shange, and June Jordan. The debut tape included the first episode of Personal Problems on one side and a reading of Reed’s satirical novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red on the other. In November 1978, Cannon aired the first episode on WBAI in New York City, as part of his radio show. Three months later, Reed shared Personal Problems on his own program on KQED in California, where he introduced the show with a nod to its importance as “the only soap opera conceived, directed, and produced by colored people…” He wryly added, “eat your heart out Norman Lear [producer of All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons.]” For anyone who wasn’t yet aware, Reed clarified that this was something different.
Over the next two years, four episodes of Personal Problems were broadcast. As listeners in New York City and Northern California tuned in, Reed, Cannon and Cotton continued to expand the show. With the assistance of an NEA grant, Reed and Cannon brought together friends and artists to work on a video pilot of Personal Problems. Bill Gunn, a groundbreaking writer, director, and stage actor known for his art-horror masterpiece Ganja & Hess (1973), agreed to direct the pilot while Bill Stephens, who played Johnnie Mae’s brother on the radio show, became the cinematographer. Stephens, a film and video artist (who made Congo Oye! with Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver) operated the People’s Communication Network, an arts organization and workshop space in Harlem.
Rather than shoot the pilot on film, the crew decided, in part for financial reasons, to shoot on video. Even though it was far less expensive than film, analog video brought its own share of technical challenges, such as the fluctuating exposures created by an automatic iris and the visual “ghosting” that appears when bright objects move across the screen (an artifact of tube-based video cameras). The cameras were portable but cumbersome and even with proper expertise the technology still presented unforeseen challenges for most users.
The first production meetings were held in the spring of 1979 and by the end of May a version had been rehearsed, shot, and edited, with most of the pilot taped in Bill Stephens’s apartment on Riverside Drive. Reed was eager to get the project in front of producers at PBS, however the pilot made its public debut at the San Jose Fine Film Series in March 1980 as a “work in progress.” Two months later, Personal Problems screened as one feature in a two-night event showcasing the work of Bill Stephens at the New York Visual Anthropology Center, where Stephens emphasized how the project questioned conventional notions of “real images vs. positive images.”
Beyond proving that a black soap opera was possible, the pilot also served as a demo reel for further financing and fellowships. PBS rejected the show, but Reed won an NEA grant and the crew quickly began to work on Personal Problems Volume 1 and Volume 2. Though money remained tight (Reed once described the budget as equivalent to the price of a “red carpet gown”), the grant allowed the team to expand to a production staff of nearly 30 people and work on Volume 1 between September and October of 1980. Michele Wallace, who had recently published The Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978), joined the cast, along with a number of other artists and intellectuals including Renauld White (the first black model to appear on the cover of GQ), LaMarries Moses (a prominent model), Kip Hanrahan (a jazz musician), and Sam Waymon (a musician and composer of the score for Ganja & Hess). Perhaps the most notable change in form came when cinematographer Bill Stephens was replaced by Robert Polidori, an artist who worked as an assistant at Anthology Film Archives and previously studied with experimental film and videomakers Paul Sharits and Woody Vasulka.
For the 29-year-old Polidori, Personal Problems offered a space to experiment with form. Using two Sony cameras, he shot Personal Problems on 3/4" U-Matic tape, taking advantage of the capacity to record up to 60 minutes of footage. Working with Gunn and Cotton, he often kept the camera running even after a scene seemed to be completed. The set was driven by a number of political and aesthetic commitments and the young cinematographer followed Gunn’s lead as the director created an atmosphere of what Polidori called “improvisational jamming.” Energized by Gunn’s direction and inspired by D.A. Pennebaker’s work with Jean-Luc Godard on One A.M. (1972) and Norman Mailer on Maidstone (1970), Polidori joined in on the jamming, as he explained, to “set up the dramatic tensions” where “the outcomes” were not “predetermined.”
While the shooting schedule was limited, Gunn allowed actors to build their own backstories and develop dialogue on the set. Following a number of planning meetings and a few days of rehearsals, the cast established a strong sense of mutual trust. There were rarely more than a couple of takes for any one scene and while improvisation reigned, that improvisation rested on a foundation of collaborative practice and calm, if intense, focus. When Polidori looked back, he recalled Gunn’s low-key nature and insightful instruction to actors to “just be there in your own head.” For the actor John Di Benedetto, Gunn’s animating questions created a sense that “you didn’t feel like you were being judged… [when Gunn] asked you do something different it was like he had an idea rather than a problem [with what you did].” This generosity and back-and-forth between actors and directors further distinguished Personal Problems from similar soap operas of the era. The crew worked in conjunction with one another, sharing ideas and moving as a singular unit. The actress Mizan Nunes recalled that the production was an indelible experience where Gunn orchestrated actors with such a deft hand that he seemed to be conducting “classical jazz.” The notes may not have been perfect but they were always motivated.
While Gunn had some misgivings about shooting on tape, the technology foregrounded the project’s already experimental form. Apparent in the scan lines, shot composition, and muffled sound, Personal Problems confounded the lines distinguishing documentary and fiction, and in doing so it undercut the widely held misapprenhension that black art was sociological first and aesthetic second. Echoing Bill Stephens’s earlier comments, Carman Moore, who composed the score for the radio show and video project, explained that Personal Problems was “nominally a fiction [movie] but it behaves like a documentary.” For black artists, video offered a tool to sidestep Hollywood’s protocols and create new worlds. Reed was clear about this, telling one audience that video will help black artists “go out and create their own [image]… video cameras are cheaper than cinema technology. There is a possibility now of converting video into cinema.” This sentiment was shared by the black feminist writer Alice Childress who claimed that video “give[s] us more freedom than we’ve ever had.” At the dawn of the Reagan years, that freedom was always attenuated. Polidori, one of the few white members of the crew, recalled going to rental stores and being rebuked by racist store managers who were uneasy lending cameras to a predominately black production.
Personal Problems Volume 1 had its world premiere at the Centre Pompidou in November 1980. That same month, Volume 1 premiered stateside at the New School’s Parson’s Auditorium (previously known as the historic 5th Avenue Cinema). Working tirelessly, Reed brought the project to SUNY Buffalo, an academic conference in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Pacific Film Archive before the year was over. In 1981, the same year that footage for Personal Problems Volume 2 was shot, local affiliates KQED in California and WNYC expressed interest. However, video, the very medium that was essential to Personal Problems’ existence, soon became an impediment, as the stations were hesitant to broadcast the ever-degrading tapes Reed owned.
Not only does Personal Problems present a new vision of life, but the project’s production and form serve as startlingly poignant examples of collective artistic practice.
Some restoration work was done and KQED broadcast Volume 1 in November of 1981 at 11:35 PM on a Saturday night. The following year the show made its way to WNYC where it aired at 9 PM on a Sunday. While the program was well received by viewers, the troubling time slots made a large audience unlikely. The hopes for distribution dried up again. In 1982, as the NAACP was beginning to support a boycott of Hollywood due to the continually shrinking number of roles for black creative laborers, television seemed to follow Hollywood’s lead. Reed failed to find financial support among major networks and the show didn’t find a home on the recently launched BET either. Producers and executives repeatedly turned to the same refrain in their rejection: the notion of a black soap opera was too esoteric.
Almost a decade after the initial idea, Reed continued to showcase Personal Problems throughout the country. In 1982, The Kitchen, the venerable New York performance space, began distributing and exhibiting Volume 1 and Volume 2 while the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston included the project in their New Soap Video series, and Rice University welcomed the show for a special event. Perhaps the most successful “run” came in 1984 when Reed traveled with the movie as part of the Southern Circuit, a program developed by the South Carolina Arts Commission with funding also provided by the NEA and the Japan Foundation. Over the course of a week, Reed screened Personal Problems in six different southern cities. Gunn, who had continued working on a number of his own projects for television, was astonished, telling one of the actors that it seemed as though Reed was “traveling with [Personal Problems] like it's his baby under his arm, across the world.” Even after the idea was realized, it needed to be brought to life again and again.
The assignment of authorship to a single director has always been an illusion. To call this Gunn’s movie would be a misnomer that imposes the same language that has historically devalued the work of black artists. The dictatorial regime of the television writers room or the power granted by the director’s chair was dispersed among a group of artists that ranged from actors, poets and writers to anthropologists, experimental filmmakers, jazz musicians, and models. As Nunes recalled the project was the work of “outlaw artists” and the cast and crew made their own rules. This is apparent in the concluding credits. Though the lead actors and director are delineated and there is a note that the project began with “an original idea by Ishmael Reed,” other roles were fluid and less clear. Throughout the production actors served as editors and producers when needed just as writers became assistants when necessary.
Seen now, it is apparent that Personal Problems is less a product than a process where an idea went through numerous translations and transformations. From idea to radio show to video, Personal Problems has never been a stable entity. For years, the project has required qualifications, amendments and annotations as it has moved across media and been shown under different viewing conditions. Typical categories fail to describe it: when the pilot was shot, the team envisioned something serialized and longer than a movie. Although later episodes aired on television, the project was more commonly screened in museums and theaters and art institutions. And yet the project’s narrative emphasis and production process seem to push it outside of the bounds of what, in the 1980s, was considered “video art.” These thorny, not-quite-right, descriptions only further highlight the unique intervention Personal Problems was and remains.
Not only does Personal Problems present a new vision of life, one Reed described as falling in line with Bill Gunn’s longstanding depiction of black characters who “know about old furniture, azaleas, and who can order their wine in French… though they may be a few months behind in their Mastercard payments, they will never have to return to the real sharecropping,” but the project’s production and form serve as startlingly poignant examples of collective artistic practice.
In 1989, the night before Bill Gunn’s The Forbidden City premiered at the Public Theater, the artist known for crossing mediums and destabilizing conventions died. With his death, it became clear that were there ever to be another volume in the Personal Problems series, it wouldn’t be the same. The following summer, Reed organized a retrospective of Gunn’s career at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This historic event, nearly a decade after the museum had turned down Cannon and Reed’s submission of the original video pilot, featured rare screenings of projects Gunn worked on, including Personal Problems and the never-released film, Stop.
Twenty years later, in 2010, interest in Personal Problems was ushered anew by film programmer Jacob Perlin, who during the curation of the series “The Groundbreaking Bill Gunn” at BAMcinématek in New York, organized for the initial digitization and first attempted re-organization of Reed’s massive collection of original video materials. In 2015, Perlin and Reed, with series co-programmer Michelle Materre, organized a screening and reunion event in 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which featured Reed, Sam Waymon, and Carman Moore. Kino Lorber’s director of restorations, Bret Wood, first saw Personal Problems at the Whitney. Years later Wood began working with Perlin and Reed to restore Personal Problems to its best possible quality and reintroduce it to a new generation of viewers.
For decades, there has been no definitive version of this groundbreaking experimental soap opera. Kino Lorber’s release, Wood’s restoration work and the premiere exhibition at Metrograph in New York, is an important call not only to hear and see the possibilities of collaborative improvisation in action, but also to rethink what histories of cinema and television we tell. This work was never lost; rather, it was suppressed by the same forces of white supremacy that Window Dressing on the Set detailed in the late 1970s. Reed’s exhaustive search for audiences was unique, but not unheard of. Decades earlier, the pioneering black filmmaker and writer Oscar Micheaux drove around the country selling books door-to-door and carrying his films state to state, recutting them as he traveled. Though technology changed by the late 1970s, the film (and growing television) industry remained gated and locked. Nearly 40 years since the radio show premiered, this release stands as an invitation to question what creative possibilities for representation and employment might be made available in the future.
It all began with an idea but it has taken so much more.
Nicholas Forster is a writer and PhD Candidate in African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. He is currently writing a biography of Bill Gunn.