On PBS: a singing group's glorious TV debut - also, 'Popular Neurotics'

Despite a seeming lull in on-stage appearances, not all of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s type of protest singers have disappeared from the performing stage. While Bob Dylan has turned mainly to rock and The Weavers have disbanded except for occasional nostalgia reunions, one of the most unusual groups - Sweet Honey in the Rock - is finally making its major national debut this week on PBS. Simultaneously, this debut is gloriously nostalgic, delightfully naive, and shockingly relevant.

Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock (PBS, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 10 -11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is an honest attempt at concert television interspersed with documentary. Sweet Honey is a five-woman a cappella group (six, if you count the member who signs for the deaf). The women work at various jobs, yet are so committed to the songs they sing and the messages they bring that each weekend they travel to locations around the country to perform before any group that requests them.

Although rooted in the civil rights movement of the '60s, the five-woman group began in the '70s and has included 18 women as members at various times. In interviews they explain how they teach one another and share their knowledge with one another before they rehearse their political and personal songs, which they sing in traditional and contemporary styles. In all songs, however, there is a strong overlay of their religious revival and native African roots.

The songs, delivered with an overwhelming feeling of personal involvement, range from ''Crying for Freedom in South Africa'' to ''We Bring Home More Than a Paycheck to Our Loved Ones'' (asbestos, radiation, etc.). The grand finale in this concert, recorded at Gallaudet College for the deaf in Washington, D.C., was ''I Ain't Gonna Study War No More,'' and it brought the audience to its feet clapping in unison and singing along. An unforgettable camera shot at the end shows two hands of a spectator raised in praise, signing ''applause.''

''Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock'' was produced by Michelle Parkerson, a poet and filmmaker, for the Independent Minority Producers Laboratory at WETA in Washington. It is being presented, along with many other fine black-oriented programs, as part of PBS's ''Black History Month.'' Whether or not one agrees with the political orientation of the film and the group - one of the interviews is with Angela Davis - ''Honey in the Rock'' is a social, political, and artistic phenomenon that demands recognition and appreciation.

Original drama

Can love survive in an era of automated banking?

That's the basic question posed in a quixotically brilliant, unevenly hilarious, original drama, a Valentine's Day gift to ''American Playhouse'' viewers: Popular Neurotics (PBS, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premieres and repeats).

New playwright Aubrey Williams reveals a finely tuned gift for writing outrageous sketches which combines the non sequitur style of Pinter with the pseudo-Freudian gobbledygook of Woody Allen. What results is a melange of impressionist living in an abstract expressionist world where young singles must try to build ''meaningful relationships'' in a society of ''comparison shoplifters.''

You may not be taken with the lovers - Jeff Goldblum and Mimi Kennedy - or even with the symbolic sets and oddball direction of Lamont Johnson at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. And many viewers may even find much of the dialogue incomprehensible. But it's hard not to recognize the fact that ''Popular Neurotics'' is a fascinating attempt to create pungent social satire and masquerade it as sitcom.

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