Reimagining SOUL! at the Center
The year was 1972. It was 3:00 AM on a warm August morning, when 3,000 people of all colors streamed out of Philharmonic Hall (since renamed David Geffen Hall). Hugs and high-fives abounded after a rollicking midnight jazz and R&B concert at Lincoln Center that prompted one Black woman to remark, "Damn, this is the hippest thing I've ever been to at Lincoln Center!"
This presentation of Black culture and art, under the collective title Soul at the Center, was a two-week festival celebrating Black music, dance, theater, and poetry. For the first time in its history, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts collaborated with the Black community on a groundbreaking celebration of rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz. More like a happening than anything else, Soul at the Center presented performances by Nikki Giovanni and the New York Community Choir, Nina Simone, LaBelle, Ike & Tina Turner, the George Faison Universal Dance Experience, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Taj Mahal, and Donny Hathaway. There was a rousing church service led by the Reverend James Cleveland, energetic fashion shows in the lobby featuring the latest dashikis from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and live demonstrations of African hair-braiding in full view around the fountain. The air was electric. And on July 24 in Damrosch Park, that electricity will return to the people with a special tribute to Soul at the Center, part of this year's Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
"We were going to call this festival a 'Black Experience Revival,'" event co-producer Ellis Haizlip told the New York Times in July 1972, "but a lot of people thought that 'revival' was not really the word, so we made it 'Soul at the Center.'" Haizlip continued, noting "We are all going to have to occupy this space here—this center, and this world—for some time to come so we've got to learn to give people room."
The notion of "more room" to express himself had always been something Haizlip had wanted, as a young, queer, Black man growing up in the racially segregated Deanwood neighborhood of northeast Washington, D.C. That summer of '72, Haizlip’s dreams of freedom of Black expression gained considerably more room at Lincoln Center. Haizlip was on a mission, in his words to another New York Times reporter, to sensitize and include the entire community in the lifestyle and rhythm of the Black community. "We're going to leave vibrations at Lincoln Center that will make it impossible for culture to be defined in New York without Black people," he said.
John W. Mazzola, Lincoln Center's managing director at the time, shared the mission that these performances would "create a further awareness of the very special contributions Black artists have made to the cultural life of the United States."
Ellis Haizlip was the visionary creator, producer, and host of SOUL!, a groundbreaking Black Arts television series broadcast weekly on WNET Channel 13, New York City's flagship PBS station. To millennials, SOUL! might just be the greatest show you've never heard of. A refresher for those who were there: SOUL! premiered in 1968, airing 130 dynamic episodes before its controversial cancellation in 1973. It was the first nationally broadcast all-Black variety show on television, merging artists from the margins with post–civil rights Black radical thought. Originally conceived as a "Black Tonight Show," at a time of great turmoil and social unrest in America, SOUL! was a quintessentially New York institution, which also became a platform for political expression and the fight for social justice.
A quiet revolutionary, Haizlip was determined to elevate the perception of African American culture by showcasing a dazzling array of people of color: performers, artists, activists, community leaders, and politicians at a time when television would neither accurately reflect nor positively portray a full spectrum of society. He ensured that the revolution would be televised.
Tall and slender, bespectacled with a polite, laid-back demeanor and effortless style, Haizlip had a unique ability to spot talent, and champion emerging acts by offering them their first appearances on television. Appearing for the first time were Earth, Wind & Fire; Al Green; Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson; Roberta Flack; Novella Nelson; Black Ivory; Toni Morrison; The Last Poets; and a 16-year-old Arsenio Hall doing magic tricks. Over the years, prominent guests included Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka. Centered around live performances by funk, soul, jazz, and world musicians, the series juxtaposed performance with in-depth interviews, featuring Black Panthers and Black Power activists Kathleen Cleaver and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) flexing their radical politics, beloved sports icon Muhammad Ali freely expressing his anti–Vietnam War stance, or literary icons Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin openly challenging each others' ideas in a heated discussion on gender and power.
"Mr. SOUL!," as Haizlip was affectionately known, became the title of the feature documentary I produced and directed, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, has screened at over 50 festivals worldwide, and will soon have a theatrical release. Our film illuminates how SOUL! became one of the most successful and culturally significant Black-produced television shows in U.S. television history, providing expanded images of African Americans, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement, and paving the way for today's Black television hosts.
"We're going to leave vibrations at Lincoln Center that will make it impossible for culture to be defined in New York without Black people."
This summer, as Lincoln Center celebrates its 60th anniversary, Out of Doors revives Soul at the Center by paying homage to Haizlip's many contributions to the arts. Opening night will be dedicated to him, with a celebration featuring Grammy Award–winning vocalist Lalah Hathaway in a tribute to her father Donny Hathaway, who performed at the original 1972 event. In a nod to Haizlip's innate Afrofuturism, queer pop duo The Illustrious Blacks will kick off the evening with their disco-infused funk.
As we celebrate how far we've come and acknowledge how far we have yet to go in the fight to achieve equality, inclusion, fairness in representation, and the right to tell our own stories and protect the fate of our own bodies, perhaps it's an ideal moment to reflect on the producer's welcome note in the original Soul at the Center program. Under a warm photo of a smiling, slightly mischievous Ellis Haizlip, he writes, "Presently, Soul is in vogue. I do hope that this time we are able to fill some of these dignified and solemn buildings we are being offered with vibrations so strong, so mean, that never will another enter without acknowledging our presence here. Throughout this series of Soul at the Center please remember that."
Melissa Haizlip is an award-winning filmmaker who produced and directed the 2018 documentary Mr. SOUL!, about SOUL! and the life and work of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip.
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