A child's-eye view of racism in 'Any Day Now'
Web posted on: Tuesday, August 25, 1998 3:36:21 PM
From Correspondent Ron Tank
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The scene is Alabama in the early 1960s, where Mae Middleton and Shari Dyon Perry are childhood friends against the odds: one is white, the other African-American. Racism is spelled out on storefronts, and angry, sometimes violent protests against it are in the streets.
The scene is also Birmingham in 1998, with Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint first uncovering how their friendship came apart, then eventually restoring it.
Cable's Lifetime Television is taking viewers back to those not-so-fabulous '60s this fall with a drama in which the civil rights movement serves as a backdrop to the personal stories of two women, friends as children, who together explore the failings of their long-ago relationship.
Flashing forward to 1998, the dialogue can be edgy:
"You told me to get an abortion. You told me I was white trash," says Potts, playing the adult Mary Elizabeth O'Brian.
"You called me a nigger," responds Toussaint, playing the adult Renee Jackson.
And the conversations between the young girls can seem from a time longer ago than 35 years. Take a scene in which Perry, playing a young Renee bedecked in shimmering rhinestone tiara, asks why Middleton (as then-tomboy M.E.) is laughing at her.
"What's so funny?" asks Perry.
"You, that's what. Renee, you can't be Miss America," says Middleton. "You're colored. There's never been a colored Miss America."
Attempting to deal with racism
Racism in U.S. society has been a tough sell on television. Back in 1991, NBC tried and failed with a similarly themed show, "I'll Fly Away," starring Sam Waterston. It remained on the air for two seasons and won critical acclaim, but low ratings eventually ended its run.
Its failure may have been partially responsible for keeping "Any Day Now" off the air then. CBS bought "Any Day Now" eight years ago, said co-executive producer Nancy Miller, "but it was just going to be a half-hour for little girls. They bought it, ordered six episodes, we were 10 days from shooting, and the president of Orion, who was our studio, pulled the plug."
Ironically, that same studio president, Gary Randall, is now this show's co-executive producer, and "Any Day Now" will finally have its day on television.
The cast, perhaps not surprisingly, is quite enthusiastic. Toussaint, who has a recurring role as a tough African-American defense attorney on the Emmy-winning "Law & Order," is also cast as an attorney in "Any Day" -- this time playing a Washington career woman who returns to Birmingham after her father dies.
"How often do we get a chance to really look back on our childhood or really contact our inner child and see where certain things that we now take for granted as our personality, where those seeds were planted?" says Toussaint.
Potts, best known for her seven-year stint as Mary Jo Shively on CBS's "Designing Women," is married with children in "Any Day." She married her high school sweetheart, unemployed in 1998, and has a particularly difficult daughter.
Not just race, but 'success and the lack of it'
"Any Day Now," says Potts, a star of numerous television shows and several movies, is about many things. "It's about race, it's about class, it's about gender. It's about success and the lack of it."
But much of the show is about race. It may be a measure of how far Americans have come that the childish play on the set between Middleton and Perry, from Alabama and rural Georgia respectively, probably wouldn't have been tolerated in the young actresses' hometowns in the early '60s.
Potts said one of her friends watched "Any Day Now" and told her: "You know, I really think that it marks a return to idealism. And at the same time that it presents everything so honestly, it's idealistic, too. I think that we've lost sight of that."
"Any Day Now," which recently premiered on Lifetime, airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m ET/PT.
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