Hard Times, Brave Women Reside on 'Brewster Place'

Brewster Place is very much like the neighborhood I grew up in in the Bronx. --Actor Leon Robinson

I lived on a street just like this on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. --Producer/casting director, Reuben Cannon

I know all these women. --Oprah Winfrey

Washing hangs on lines suspended between the tenement windows on Brewster Place. Across the way is a row of dilapidated shops--a deli, a Laundromat, a bakery, a pawnbroker. But the most significant feature of the neighborhood is the graffiti-marred wall blocking the bottom of the street. In front of the wall is a sign saying "Dead End."

Brewster Place is just that--a dead end.

Streets like this exist in every big city, and the residents are there because they have exhausted all their alternatives. Acclaimed black novelist Gloria Naylor wrote about this fictional street and seven of its inhabitants in her 1983 American Book Award-winning book of interlocking stories, "The Women of Brewster Place." Now, ABC and co-executive producer Oprah Winfrey have turned the book into a four-hour movie, to air March 19 and 20.

"This is a historical event in television," says Reuben Cannon, one of the film's producers and a highly regarded Hollywood casting agent. "We've never seen characters like this before. It's probably the first time where black actresses are the focus of the story, rather than simply being there to prove the heterosexuality of the actors."

In addition to Winfrey, "The Women of Brewster Place" features Mary Alice ("Another World"), Olivia Cole ("Roots"), Robin Givens ("Head of the Class"), Jackee ("227"), Paula Kelly ("Night Court"), Lonette McKee ("The Cotton Club"), Barbara Montgomery ("Amen"), Phyllis Yvonne Stickney (formerly of "Another World"), Cicely Tyson ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") and Lynn Whitfield ("HeartBeat").

The men, who are supporting characters, include Moses Gunn, Joe Morton, Leon Robinson and Paul Winfield.

Two years ago, when ABC announced the project, the cast was considerably different. It included Debbie Allen, Shari Belafonte-Harper, Pam Grier, Phylicia Rashad and Alfre Woodard, in addition to Winfrey and McKee.

In truth, however, Winfrey was the only performer contractually signed at that point, Cannon says. "We needed a marquee like that for the network," he says. "The other actresses had been approached and deals were made, subject to the script and availability."

When filming got under way nine months later, many of them were involved in other projects. So director Donna Deitch recast the roles. There was no dearth of talent.

"Most of those who came to casting sessions were actresses we knew," Deitch says. "But there are hundreds of black actresses who haven't had the exposure."

The only recent film to feature an ensemble cast of black actresses is "The Color Purple." There are other links between the two projects. Executive producer Carol Isenberg served as associate producer of "The Color Purple," and it was during production of that film that the book was published.

"When I was casting 'The Color Purple,' I read 'Brewster Place,' " Cannon says. "It became one of my favorite books. Then Carol called me about 'Brewster Place,' and the very next day Oprah called and said, 'I hear something's going on with "Brewster Place." ' It was psychic energy. If Oprah didn't exist, I don't think this project would have happened."

Winfrey says, "I read this book while shooting 'The Color Purple' and knew it was the next thing I wanted to do." But even with her involvement, all three networks initially turned it down. Then ABC arranged a meeting with Winfrey to talk about other projects.

" 'This is what I want to do,' I said to Brandon (Stoddard, president of ABC Entertainment), and I pulled out three copies of 'Brewster Place.' 'I know you turned it down, Brandon, but obviously being the wise one that you are, you hadn't read it. I'll call you Tuesday.' I was relentless. I'd call and ask, 'Are you reading it? What page are you on?' There are no half-sells. That would be like being a little pregnant."

Winfrey's persistence paid off.

"I think everyone overlooked the significance of the book initially," says Scott Spiegel, executive producer of movies for television at ABC. "I read it because Oprah asked me to. The first story brought tears to my eyes. 'Wait a minute,' I said to myself. 'Why should I, a white male executive, relate to a black feminist novel?' This book has heart. It's a story about women trying to take control of their lives."

Spiegel became the project's advocate. "I was one person in a chain of decision-makers, but passion is infectious," he says. "Brandon knew how passionate I was, and eventually he said, 'Go for it. We trust your instincts.' "

And so on a sunny day last summer, Universal Studios' New York street was turned into a slum, and a block party was in progress. While a disc jockey played popular tunes from 1964, the tenants of Brewster Place ate and danced together. The scene is an important one; it leads to the story's climax, when the women decide to take action against the wall that isolates them from the community and represents their dead-end life.

Standing in the center of the action was Winfrey, almost unrecognizable in a gray wig and frumpy, green and yellow housedress. Her character, Mattie Michael, is a late-middle-aged woman now, 30 years after the audience first saw her as an innocent country girl of 18--before she had experienced men. Her route to Brewster Place was slow but inevitable once her son turned to crime.

Mattie's best friend on Brewster Place is a fun-loving woman "who always leaves and comes back," says Jackee, who plays her. "She goes to the big city looking for the one perfect man. This was a time when women couldn't assert themselves. You had to live your life through a man."

Other Brewster Place residents include a single mother (Stickney), a lesbian couple (McKee and Kelly), a young woman trying to preserve her marriage (Whitfield) and an idealist who attempts to organize a tenants group (Givens).

Those critics of "The Color Purple" who were upset about the negative portrayal of black men may be equally disturbed when they see "Brewster Place." Only one male character, played by Leon Robinson, is positive. Robinson is not perturbed by the number of negative male characters. "As we tell stories true to life, men are not always going to be the heroes," he says.

"In the past, important black projects have always been historical or political," Lynn Whitfield adds. "But everything goes in cycles. Right now, strong feminist black writers are being given the opportunity to speak their minds, and their material is being done. Because there aren't as many black projects as there should be, there's always a lot of pressure put on any one project to answer all the questions."

Winfrey doesn't like this line of questioning. "The book is not untruthful about the portrayal of men," she says. "It's not exploitative but it's truthful, that's what's important to me. For anyone to put me in that defensive mode makes me ill."

A strong supporter of black feminist writers, Winfrey has used some of her considerable income from her successful talk show to option Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved." She also bought film rights to Mark Mathabane's autobiographical "Kaffir Boy."

"You can sit around and wait for others to do it for you," she says, "but that way you get offered schlock scripts. When I find good work, I try to purchase it and see that it gets done. I don't have to be in all of them. I'm just interested in seeing good work come to the screen."

Winfrey had a double purpose in helping "Brewster Place" to the screen.

"It's a great story," she says. "It involves all these women and their spirit of survival and their attempt to maintain their dignity in a world that tries to strip them of it. I've never been more stimulated, excited or exhilarated about a piece. When I get back to the hotel at night, I can't sleep."

Her other reason was more personal. She wanted to prove that she is more than just a talk-show host.

"People said 'The Color Purple' was a fluke for me," she says of her Oscar-nominated performance. "I had my own personal doubts. But in doing this movie, I discovered I really am an actress."

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