A Saga of the Poor and the Female

"The Women of Brewster Place" is a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole.

A mostly outstanding cast and some fine individual scenes provide ABC's two-part drama (9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) with lots of exquisite edging and ample incentive for tuning in.

There is just as much incentive for tuning out, however, for here is a story, based on a novel by Gloria Naylor, that has no center and is at times hard to follow.

It's sometimes arresting, but ultimately unsatisfying--a beefy, blubbery soap opera from talk show star Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions Inc. that turns out to be torment almost for its own sake.

Notably, "The Women of Brewster Place" was filmed last summer, giving Winfrey one last crack at a matronly character role before her famous diet. And under Donna Deitch's direction, she polishes it to a gem, proving that her work in "The Color Purple" was no fluke.

We meet Winfrey as young, unmarried Mattie Michael, whose pregnancy becomes pivotal in her life and the story, driving her from her rural parents to the big city, where years later her home becomes a tenement on a walled-off street in a rickety black neighborhood. The wall becomes a symbol of classism--a rather cheap one, unfortunately.

You initially infer from supervising producer Karen Hall's script that Mattie will dominate. But the story diffuses once she reaches Brewster Place, spreading to the other residents and the multitude of woes confronting them in ghetto life. There's movement but little cohesion as the scene shifts from apartment to apartment, from character to character and--predictably--from problem to problem.

Credit "The Women of Brewster Place" with providing at least a vague sense of what it is like to be poor and without hope, and with creating a 31-flavors matriarchy of black characters whose refreshing diversity and rejection of weary cliches are probably unparalleled in prime time.

You get the upper-class do-gooder (Robin Givens) along with the single mother of seven (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney), the fast-living heterosexual (Jackee) along with the two lesbian lovers (Lonette McKee and Paula Kelly), the evil busybody Miss Sophie (Olivia Cole) along with the sweet Ciel (Lynn Whitfield). All suffer.

And all demonstrate that the black experience is not monolithic.

Yet except for Mattie, these are little more than mug shots, underexplored characters about which only the barest is revealed except that their lives are linked by the dilapidated building and neighborhood they share.

Any colorization has to be regarded as beneficial in television, where "rainbow" is defined as shades of white. More than just a black story, however, this is a female story. Its few males of consequence--notably Mattie's runaway son and the husband of the woman she loves as a daughter--are weak, ineffectual and undependable, affirming the controversial stereotype of the absentee black man who shirks responsibility.

Although an unconvincing ingenue, there may not be an actress who ages better than Winfrey. Her people-instincts are fully activated here, the sorrowful eyes and sagging body conveying the mature Mattie's outward weariness from years of struggle. You tire a bit of Mattie's martyrdom, but not of her heroism.

Surpassing even Winfrey is Cole as the rigid, hateful Miss Sophie, whose gossiping tongue sparks a disaster. She's not on screen very long, but just the sight of her, glowering through her steel spectacles, makes you tense and uneasy.

Some of the other casting is interesting. Jackee brings a tender, underlying melancholia to brash, sassy Etta Mae. But Etta Mae is so outwardly close to Jackee's vampish Sandra character on NBC's "227" that you wonder why something so similar even appealed to her.

If not for Winfrey, many will watch "The Women of Brewster Place" for Givens, who is able to make you forget Mike Tyson, but not her lapses in range and subtlety as Kiswana, the uptowner who decides to live with the poor and organize the tenants of Brewster Place. The role is neither well written nor well played.

Worth mentioning are some sparkling cameos: Cicely Tyson, who contributes an electrifying scene as Kiswana's mother; Mary Alice and Paul Winfield as Mattie's parents, and Barbara Montgomery as Miss Eva, the old woman who takes in a young Mattie off the street.

Such fine work. But to no discernible end, for despite its social-conscious embroidery, "The Women of Brewster Place" seems to have no ambition beyond dropping some tears and concluding at 11 p.m. Monday.

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