Today Metrograph begins a weeklong run of the heretofore rarely screened Personal Problems, an intimate epic focused on the everyday struggles of a black couple and their extended circle of friends and family. Described as a “meta soap opera” by writer Ishmael Reed, who originated the project, the designation seems less a reference to dramatic histrionics—although it does indeed encompass multiple affairs, criminal schemes, hospital scenes, and a funeral—than its video format. It originated as a radio show for which Reed allowed the cast to improvise and rewrote based on the performances. After an initial attempt at a pilot rejected by PBS, Personal Problems (produced in two parts designated as “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”) was shot on a shoestring budget with public arts funding on Sony ¾” U-matic cassettes, a format favored by video artists, under the direction of Bill Gunn. With the ghostly smears inherent to the standard-definition portable tube video camera, it’s still a far cry from the relative glamour of studio television productions, an effect that at once enhances the documentary-like intimacy of the project while speaking to the marginalized status of black media makers—and even suggests the urgently disconcerting reality of how so many of its productions risk fading from view due to lack of proper archival care. (Personal Problems was re-mastered through the capturing and frame-specific re-editing of the camera-original tapes, which were in a trunk in Reed’s house. Metrograph’s Jake Perlin is cited for renewing interest in the project, whose restoration was overseen by Kino Lorber's Bret Wood. Compared to the previous version in circulation, the image and especially sound are dramatically improved.)
The central character is Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a member of Sun Ra’s entourage), a nurse who is having an affair with a nightclub keyboard player (Sam Waymon). She’s from the south and questions her decision to leave home while longing for a better life: “It’s not that I’m unhappy, it’s just that I’m not happy. … I’m getting tired of this scuffling, scrimping, scrounging, working hard, getting nothing out of it, all this concrete.” In the meantime, her husband (Walter Cotton), whose father (Jim Wright) lives with the couple, is also carrying on his own affair, the fallout of which is complicated by the arrival of Johnnie’s brother (Thommie Blackwell) and his wife (Andrea W. Hunt). And that only begins to round out the cast of characters and family connections, many portrayed by interdisciplinary cultural luminaries—Reed himself even appears memorably as a man who professes his support for Ronald Reagan to troll an insufferably excitable white radical, who deems Reed’s character a member of the “oppressor class” for owning a hot dog restaurant. Yet within its long list of interpersonal concerns, Personal Problems is notable for its mellow pace, with each roughly 90 minute segment containing only a dozen or so scenes. Whether they play with stage-like dramatic precision or a vibrant improvisation, the effect is always incisively truthful and alive. It's a necessary work, and one of the major repertory revivals of this or any other year.