ISHMAEL REED, the poet of hoodoo, has gone into TV.
The rampageous writer, whose wild comedy crashes through the reality barrier in novels like "Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down" and whose black anger shrivels "gliberals" of all colors, was in town recently to show three hours of his video soap opera to the right people.
The show, "Personal Problems," will air in April on WNYC in New York and at the San Francisco Video Festival. It's already been seen on public television's KQED in San Francisco and in Paris. He hopes to market it in this area.
"I was not pleased with what I've seen on television," said Reed, who was recently writer in residence at George Mason University. "But people have told me that this is the first time they've seen blacks shown as they really are--and not as some TV stereotype."
The story takes its time getting under way, but gradually it pulls the viewer into its homely conflicts: a hard working nurse at Harlem Hospital who is suddenly burdened with her shiftless brother and his wife, the death of her live-in father-in-law, love affairs, squabbles at the breakfast table and plain good times.
There is no narrator. Events happen in real time, with all the "uhs" and repetitions of daily life, as when a hospital registrar delays an incoming, moaning patient while she fills out his form in excruciating detail. In one charming scene, three women friends at a sidewalk cafe talk hilariously, scandalously about life and men. In another, following the father's death, four men (with a bottle of scotch in a bag) celebrate their survival and their grief in a sequence as sweetly sad as George Segal's and Godfrey Cambridge's "Bye Bye Braverman."
The father was played by Jim Wright, a veteran of the Orson Welles "Macbeth" in the Federal Theater Project, who actually did die during the filming and to whom the picture is dedicated. Verta Mae Grosvenor plays the central character. Several black TV and film actors appeared in the film for scale wages. The director was Bill Gunn, the producer Walter Cotton. Reed provided the story treatment.
"It all started as a radio show in '78," he said. "We started this in '80 and finished it last year. You notice how few films are coming out of books by Afro-Americans. Jack Valenti says it's because there are no black writers around these days."
He had to laugh. He himself has published five novels, one of which was nominated for the National Book Award, and he has another coming out in June, "The Terrible Twos," which he says is a children's book for adults. There is also another book of essays due, "God Made Alaska for the Indians," chronicling the 10-year battle by the Tlingit Indians to save their homeland from the Sierra Club preservationists. There are also three volumes of poetry, including another NBA nominee. It is mostly the poetry that shows Reed's fascination with hoodoo or voodoo or vodoun as a link with ancient African culture.
The author, who recently turned 44, lectures at the University of California in Berkeley and directs Reed & Cannon Communications, which publishes Quilt magazine. And now he's into video.
That's a lot of projects.
"What's your beef with me Bo Shmo, what if I write circuses?" says Loop Garoo, the black cowboy hero of "Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down." "No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons. . . ."