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Short Story, Long Suffering

October 22, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are several poignant and heartbreaking moments in "Cora Unashamed," the first presentation of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection," airing Wednesday.

But there's one scene in the adaptation of the short story by renowned African American writer Langston Hughes that is "probably the most dramatically authentic" of any of the movies she's made, according to executive producer Marian Rees ("Miss Rose White," "Love Is Never Silent" and "Foxfire.") "There were two takes and, after the second take, we had to break the cast and crew for nearly 20 minutes," Rees says. "They just couldn't get it back together."

It's hard not to be moved by that sequence in the Depression-era tale that finds Cora (Regina Taylor), the daughter of the only African American family in a small Iowa town, desperately trying to revive her young daughter, Josephine (Tinashe Kachungwe). As Cora holds the still body of her little girl, she lets out a primal scream for Josephine to breathe. The scene is staggering in its emotional intensity.

"I give a great deal of credit to the little girl playing my daughter," Taylor says, modestly. "She is a 6-year-old doing this part. After the scene, she started boo-hooing. Something in that [scene] really just struck her. We were holding each other afterward."

"Cora Unashamed" also stars Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones ("The Heiress") as Lizbeth Studevant, Cora's socially driven employer. Molly Graham portrays Jessie, Lizbeth's daughter at age 5, while Ellen Muth plays Jesse at 18. Kohl Sudduth plays Joe, Cora's lover. The story woven through this first "American Collection" is, at its most basic, about the often-tortured relationships between mothers and daughters, told by Hughes' to powerful effect.

During the next three years "The American Collection" will feature nine films based on the works of American authors. Five films are being executive produced by Emmy Award-winner Rees and her partners Anne Hopkins and Stephen Kulczycki under their ALT Films banner; four are coming from "Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton and her team at WGBH in Boston.

The series also has the support of the National Council of Teachers of English. Two Web sites: www.ncteamericancollection.org and pbs.org/masterpiece/americancollection will feature supplementary educational materials. Eaton says the films will be made available "to more than 200,000 teachers, which means [the movies] have the potential of reaching 18 million students."

Eaton says she's long desired to bring the best of American literature to PBS: "[The PBS series] 'American Playhouse' used to sort of cover the waterfront for American drama. When 'American Playhouse' folded there was some renewed interest that maybe ["Masterpiece Theatre"] would like to do something." There are three partners in the venture: PBS, Exxon Mobil, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--the major partner having awarded a grant of $15 million to ALT Films.

"We all joined forces using the platform of 'Masterpiece Theatre" from which to launch this new series," Eaton says. "It's sort of hard to distinguish yourself these days in such a crowded television landscape. 'Masterpiece Theatre' comes with a loyal audience and an expectation of quality, which we thought would serve the 'American Collection" as well."

Besides "Cora," the first year of the series will feature Henry James' "The American" with Matthew Modine and Dame Diana Rigg, as well as Willa Cather's "Song of the Lark" with Alison Elliott, Tony Goldwyn and Maximilian Schell. The latter was produced by Rees. Both dramas are scheduled to air in 2001.

"We had total actual responsibility in the title selections," Rees says. "This was a challenge when you think of selecting five titles from three centuries of American writers. We wanted to be relevant and feature regional diversity."

Taylor says that everyone involved in "Cora" was committed to the drama. "I thought it turned out beautifully," she says. "We were in love with the piece and all of us brought our hearts to it. I grew up on 'Masterpiece Theatre' and I never expected I would appear on it!"

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"Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection: Cora Unashamed" airs Wednesday at 9p.m.on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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