Nearly 30 years after its inception on PBS as a Sunday night home away from home for the best of British TV drama, "Masterpiece Theatre" is launching an "American Collection" featuring works by prominent U.S. writers ranging from Willa Cather to Henry James.
This is no weekly series, but occasional pit stops--just nine in all during the next three years--that you'd hope would evolve eventually into something of much greater breadth.
It begins auspiciously tonight with "Cora Unashamed," a moving, heartfelt, beautifully filmed version of a short story by Langston Hughes, an African American best known for his poems. The most famous of these, "Dream Deferred," influenced Lorraine Hansberry to write "A Raisin in the Sun."
"Cora Unashamed" runs from 1916 to the early 1930s. After the death of her young daughter, Cora (Regina Taylor) and her aging mother (CCH Pounder) are the only "colored folk" in tiny Melton, Iowa, where their family had lived for years as a servant class. Cora's employers are the well-to-do Studevants, in whose home she washes, irons, cooks, scrubs, cares for the two children and tends to the family's personal needs.
After the traumatic loss of her own child, fathered out of wedlock by a white boy, Cora transfers her love to the Studevants' ungifted youngest daughter, Jessie (Ellen Muth), becoming her surrogate parent in this passionless household where the girl's father (Michael Gaston) is weak and her social snob of a mother, Lizbeth (Cherry Jones), is aloof, rigid and demanding.
There is serene brilliance and subtlety, not militancy here. Ann Peacock's fine teleplay and Deborah M. Pratt's shaded direction have Cora blooming in stages and privately seething in this repressive environment while gradually coming into direct conflict with Lizbeth over her mistreatment of the vulnerable Jessie. Melton social ranking aside, it's clear which woman is stronger.
What superb work by Taylor in scene after scene, whether cursing God for taking her beloved child or expressing outrage with eyes that flash resentment over being smothered by a white paternalistic culture. She is a great talent.
Matching her in a less showy supporting role is Jones, and together they are quietly stunning. There is a moment near the end of "Cora Unashamed" when the gazes of the two women meet briefly, their thoughts interacting almost violently, the few inches between them widening to a chasm of unspoken anger and resentment spanning an entire generation of race conflict.
All the more reason to tune in tonight and hope for much more of the same in the near future.
* "Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection: Cora Unashamed" airs tonight at 9 on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).