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Short Stories of Segregation and 'Pain'

February 17, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's too bad that television doesn't seem to have an appropriate format to deal with short stories. The rich, dramatic texturing of the three tales by African American authors that have been dramatized for HBO's "America's Dream" provides impressive evidence of the absorbing potential of this far too neglected form.

Richard Wright's "Long Black Song," placed in the rural South of the early '30s, deals with one of the essential black-white issues without settling upon cheap or easy solutions. Danny Glover's superb performance as a hard-working farmer forced to confront a humiliating incident, and Tina Lifford's complex rendering of his wife, are character studies that transcend--as does the story--the rigid social delineations of the period.

In John Henrik Clarke's "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black," Wesley Snipes offers a low-key but subliminally visceral interpretation of a school principal obliged to choose between his career ambitions and his desire to stand up and demand respect for his community. The decision, in the still segregated South of the '40s, is a difficult one, complicated by the personal as well as the professional pressures pulling him in opposing directions.

Maya Angelou's "The Reunion" is filled with the smoky ambience of the jazz world of the '50s. Lorraine Toussaint as Philomena, a pianist in a small jazz group, is startled when a white woman who was the nemesis of her unhappy childhood walks into the nightclub in the middle of a set. Besieged by painful images of their relationship as children, Philomena experiences several imagined resolutions before achieving the emotional epiphany that finally allows her to set the past to rest.

The stories were all adapted by co-producers Ashley Tyler and Ron Stacker Thompson. Patrice Rushen composed the atmospheric music, and the directors were Kevin Rodney Sullivan ("Long Black Song"), Bill Duke ("The Boy . . . ") and Paris Barclay ("The Reunion").

*

"Circle of Pain" is another African American-produced film making its way to television this weekend. And if the press hype is right and writer-director Bobby Mardis produced it with nothing more than a $30,000 grant from Showtime and some additional funding from donations and services-in-kind, he should be giving seminars in cost-control to any number of big-name directors who come to mind.

The gritty half-hour story, starring Todd Bridges and Glynn Turman, is the chronicle of a former convict's determined effort to break with his violent past and move into mainstream society.

The performances--especially by Bridges as the ex-con--are excellent, and Mardis has managed to create a sense of place that is, at times, more convincing than what one sees in considerably bigger-budget productions. Give him more expanded resources, and Mardis could emerge as an important young director.

* "America's Dream" airs at 10:15 tonight on HBO.

* "Circle of Pain" airs at 6 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.

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