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Across the Universe

‘Soul!’ and a remembrance of things perhaps not so past

Two men sitting in a TV studio
Photo provided
Ellis Haizlip, left, with Amiri Baraka on the set of SOUL!

The late ’60s, and on into 1973, was an era we remember as Nixon, civil unrest, students getting shot on campus by the National Guard. Or bell-bottom pants. Pick your own cultural touchstone.

How about “Soul!,” a television show with the exclamation point as part of its title? It’s been mostly lost to time. And the times.

“I kind of vaguely remember it,” Laura Thomas says. “My parents regulated everything we watched.”

They must have been busy policing that household; Thomas was the eighth of nine kids.

Thomas has written a handful of plays. Mostly family dramas. “Love, hate, greed, those standard things,” she says.

But a couple of years ago, a conversation with a friend revived that vague memory of “Soul!” She was intrigued. And as she began researching this forgotten bit of television history, Thomas realized that here was a story to be told: A television show built around Black culture, with a Black host, Ellis Haizlip.

“You just didn’t see a TV show with all Black guests and a Black host back then,” Thomas says.

“Why are we not talking about this guy? We should be.”

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Haizlip will be talked about this week at the eighth Bronze Collective Theatre Fest at the Multi-use Community Cultural Center on Atlantic Avenue. Four events over four days.

The first day, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16, is a simple memorial in remembrance of artists, both local and national, who passed away in 2021. “Anansi Tales REDUX” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 is interactive theater for the kids, with puppets woven into African, Caribbean and African-American Folklore. “The Legend of Double Ax Max” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 is Karen Culley’s play of departed souls and slave catchers set to a tone evoking old-time radio drama.

And tucked into the middle there, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17, is Thomas’ “Mr. Soul!” Not really the play presented in full, but a reading by six local actors. Thomas, a Rochester native, retired five months ago from the Monroe County Law Department, where she was a senior paralegal in the Children’s Services Unit.

Time, at last, to finish “Mr. Soul!” and get it to the stage. She’d been researching “Soul!” on the internet, where she found some of the old episodes. She read a book about Haizlip, “It’s Been Beautiful,” a title drawn from the closing line of Haizlip’s shows. Melissa Haizlip, Ellis’ niece, produced a 2018 documentary, also called “Mr. Soul!,” that aired on HBO Max.

Out of this came Thomas’ fictionalized version of real events, set around a real character, Ellis Haizlip.

“He was brought onto PBS to present a show that was true to Black culture and true to what Black people were thinking at the time,” Thomas says. The idea, as first presented to Haizlip, was to create “The Tonight Show” for Black people.

So many of the Black musicians of the day were showcased. Big stars, such as Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder, whose music was accompanied by a dance troupe. And yet, “He liked to give unknowns an opportunity to be heard,” Thomas says. Haizlip had an ear for talent. His show featured a then-unknown band, Earth, Wind & Fire. And a then-unknown singer, Al Green. A 15-year-old kid named Arsenio Hall did magic tricks.

Laura A. Thomas headshot
Photo provided
Laura A. Thomas is a playwright, director and actor.

But Haizlip wanted something more than the Black Tonight Show. “Jazzier,” Thomas says. “More controversial. He wanted to address the social issues.”

So there was poetry by Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, reading over the saxophone backing of Pharoah Sanders. And serious talk with author James Baldwin. Members of the Black Panther Party. Civil rights organizer Stokely Carmichael. The head of the Nation of Islam, the antisemite Louis Farrakhan.

The show “talked about some things that made people uncomfortable,” Thomas says. Racism was always in the conversation. If “Soul!” was still being produced today, perhaps homosexuality would have been a topic as well. But this was a half-century ago. “He didn’t talk about it, but he didn’t hide it, either,” Thomas says. “It was well-known he was gay.”

“Soul!” was art, and it was smart.

Thomas’ “Mr. Soul!” is the story of the show’s final days. She says the controversial topics wore out the corporate sponsorships that PBS depended on. “Basically, it was defunded.”

The unwavering dedication to exploring Black culture and Black issues likely played a role in its demise, Thomas says.

“Loving my own culture does not mean I’m putting down any other culture,” she says. “And I think that was one of the things about ‘Soul!’ that many people think was controversial.

“Embracing my Blackness does not make me anti-white.”

Haizlip did not disappear with his show. He remained active in the arts for years before his death in 1991.

And now, Haizlip and “Soul!” have re-emerged.

“When the show was ending,” Thomas says, “he was saying, ‘Well you know, sometimes things have to go away for a while, and then they re-emerge.’ Hopefully that’s what’s happening now. In the evolution of things, sometimes you have to go away, and then come back.’”