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All-American dramas take center stage

'Cora' to start off Sunday series

The Brit frock operas of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” series will be getting some healthy competition from their American cousins this season.

With the launch of “ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s American Collection’s” (beginning with Langston Hughes’ “Cora Unashamed” on Oct. 25), the Sunday night series will be offering viewers a healthy sampling of dramas based on the works of U.S. authors such as Henry James, Willa Cather and Tennessee Williams.

“They will be presented as a separate strand, with their own graphics and theme,” says series exec producer Rebecca Eaton, “and we were lucky to get John Williams to compose the theme and his friend Yo-Yo Ma to perform it for the showcase.”

“American Collection” producer Marian Rees points out that she and her partners, the well-respected PBS veteran Stephen Kulczycki, and Anne Hopkins, wanted to go beyond the classic literary canon and tell stories that presented American life from broader perspectives.

Eaton, who calls “Cora Unleashed” a “steam engine of a story,” adds that although the British are known to always write about class and power, this American apple doesn’t fall from the tree.

“If you look at many of our stories, you’ll still see that although we have a democracy here, many of our stories are also about class and the gradation of power in our society,” she says.

“Cora Unashamed” is penned by Emmy-winning scribe Ann Peacock, and features the powerhouse thesp pairing of Regina Taylor (“I’ll Fly Away”) and stage favorite Cherry Jones (“Moon for the Misbegotten”).

Upcoming titles include Cather’s “Song of the Lark,” with Matthew Modine; Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart,” with JoBeth Williams; and James Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” with James Cromwell and Annabeth Gish.

Nine of these homegrown dramas, which cost over a million dollars an hour, will be rolled out over the next three seasons. Of course, that doesn’t mean Eaton and company are going to give up their regular diet of Dickens and Austen. Opening the 30th anniversary of “Masterpiece Theatre” will be a six-hour version of “Oliver Twist,” starring the likes of Julie Walter, Robert Lindsay and Michael Kitchen — the Yanks will probably eat it up.

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