Nicholas Forster

Nicholas Forster is a PhD candidate in African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Interested in the relationship between technology, race, sound and history he has published pieces in Film Quarterly, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, and liquid blackness. He is also the producer and host of the African American studies podcast The Lower Frequencies (thelowerfrequenciespodcast.com).

"'There Are Souls Here…They Live in Layers of Time' : Sam Waymon and Bill Gunn’s Queer Transmedial Soulcraft"
In 1973 Joseph Papp, the founder of New York’s Public Theater, took the reins of the legendary Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Papp promised to produce works by black artists in a commitment to “the problems of democracy.” To close out his first season at the Beaumont, Papp chose the musical Black Picture Show: A Minstrel Show in One Act (BPS), written by the black bisexual actor Bill Gunn and scored by his partner, the musician, Sam Waymon. After multiple changes in the cast and the abandonment of Max Roach’s contributions to the score, the show opened in 1975.

Part of an unheard history of the black stage musical, BPS challenged the contours of masculinity, queerness, and genre by exploring the relationship between a black artist, “the circumstances of his insanity,” and his “counter-revolutionary” filmmaker son. Building on interviews with Waymon and members of the crew, I explore how Gunn and Waymon carved narratives where soul could mediate new visions of black masculinity.

While Waymon is known as an accompanist to his sister, the sonic freedom fighter Nina Simone, his talents as a soul artist working in multiple mediums remains underacknowledged. If soul offers, as Nathan Grant suggests, “the raw material for a new cultural revolution,” this paper argues that Waymon was behind-the-scenes collaborating and cooking up works that embraced certain generic conventions to create revolutionary spaces of queered black masculinity across mediums.

Rather than turn to the oft-studied use of soul in 1970s Blaxploitation, I focus on Waymon’s contributions to BPS and Ishmael Reed’s unreleased black video soap opera Personal Problems. In these collaborative projects, Waymon and Gunn developed what Ashon Crawley calls “otherwise movements.” Through their partnership, the sensitivity and loss so critical to soul as a mode shed its insistence on heterosexuality.