Throughout her career, Marian Anderson let her singing--not overt sociopolitical stances nor self-promotion--be the issue. "There are some who hope that if they're doing something worthwhile, it will speak for them," she says in a documentary airing tonight at 10 on Channel 28.
The odd failing then of "Marian Anderson," an earnest, straightforward tribute written by Juan Williams and produced by Tamara Robinson, is that it lets her sing only in abbreviated snippets. There is not a single complete song in the hour, with even the opening "Deep River" subject to fades and voice-overs.
There are many performance clips in the program, which give very clear indications of Anderson's steady vocal grandeur and rooted expressive warmth. A pity then, that none can stand on their own.
Instead, the producers found many other voices to speak for Anderson. Members of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia recall the singer's early career in black churches, impresarios and critics relate important milestones, and musicians such as Mattiwilda Dobbs--who became the second black to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, after Anderson broke the color barrier there in 1955--pay homage.
Anderson still maintains the quiet dignity and personal reticence that characterized her public persona, and the show makes recourse to others for comments on her motivations and experiences, answering questions that should have been put to the singer herself.
Now 89, Anderson remains a great presence, paradoxically regal in her matter-of-fact modesty. The nobility of her performances, particularly in the segregationist context powerfully and dispassionately presented here, was remarkable, as is her continuing lack of bitterness.
What emerges very clearly in this biography, is that the loss from the racist constraints on Marian Anderson's career was always ours, not hers.