A poignant adaptation of a story by Langston Hughes kicks off the new “American Collection” of the long-running PBS Masterpiece Theatre showcase in grand style. Heartfelt performances by leads Regina Taylor and Cherry Jones, strong production values, and Deborah M. Pratt’s subtle direction compellingly deliver Hughes’ tale of unspoken racism and tragedy in a small Iowa town in the 1930s.
Pic’s central character is Cora Jenkins (Taylor), the efficient and loving housekeeper of the Studevant family. As the town’s only African American residents, Cora and her mother (CCH Pounder) have learned to put up with the condescending and at times hostile attitudes of their employers. After Cora’s daughter loses her battle with a fatal illness, Cora continues to work for the cold, social climbing Lizbeth Studevant (Cherry Jones) and transfers her love to Lizbeth’s daughter Jessie.
Jealous of Cora’s bond with Jessie, Lizbeth never acknowledges her housekeeper’s loyalty and hard work, and when Jessie turns 18, a foolish error in judgment results in a devastating tragedy that brings the story to its uncompromising climax.
Much of “Cora Unashamed’s” power comes from the charged performances of its two key actresses, Taylor and Jones. Taylor, who practically glowed in the acclaimed Civil Rights-era series “I’ll Fly Away,” brings her trademark grace and dignity to the title role. Her Cora is a believable flesh-and-blood creation, and the actress does a remarkable job of showing how through the years, life’s many blows chip away at her spirit.
Jones is equally good. Her expert portrayal of the emotionally frozen Lizbeth is shaded enough to hint at the unhappy human trapped inside the monster. Her reactions to Cora’s strength and Jessie’s decisions speak volumes about the effects of ignorance and racism in America’s small towns during the ’30s.
Among the production’s other high points are lenser Ernest Holzman’s beautiful shots of rural Ohio, Patrice Rushen’s subtle score, and Marcia Calosio’s top-notch period production design.
Telepic is a praiseworthy maiden voyage for PBS’ new showcase of dramas based on American classics. If future installments — featuring the works of Henry James, Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Tennessee Williams and James Agee — are as strong as “Cora,” those Masterpiece Theatre Brits will finally be getting some healthy competition from their American cousins.