THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE

U.S. Miniseries

The Women of Brewster Place, a miniseries based on the novel by Gloria Naylor, was produced in 1989 by Oprah Winfrey's s firm Harpo, Inc. Winfrey served as Executive Producer and starred along with noted actors, Mary Alice, Jackee, Lynn Whitfield, Barbara Montgomery, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Robin Givens, Olivia Cole, Lonette McKee, Paula Kelly, Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Moses Gunn and Douglas Turner Ward. The story, spanning several decades, includes a cast of characters that depict the constant battles fought by African-American women against racism, poverty, and sexism. Interpersonal struggles and conflicts also pepper the storyline, often revolving around black men who may be fathers, husbands, sons, or lovers.

The Winfrey character, Mattie, opens the drama. Her road to Brewster Place began when she refused to reveal the name of her unborn child's father to her parents (Mary Alice and Paul Winfield). Milestones for Mattie included living in the home of Eva Turner (Barbara Montgomery) until she died and willed the house to Mattie; then forfeiting the house when her son, Basil, jumped bail after Mattie used their home as collateral for his bond. The other characters' journeys to the tenement on Brewster Place were just as unpredictable and crooked. Kiswana, portrayed by Robin Givens, moved to the neighborhood to live with her boyfriend. They worked to organize the neighbors, plan special activities for the neighborhood, and to protest their excessive rent. One of the most powerful scenes in the drama occurs between Kiswana and her mother, Mrs. Browne (Cicely Tyson). When Tyson comes for a visit, she and Givens begin a conversation that progresses into a heated argument regarding Kiswana's name change. Mrs. Browne reveals why she named her daughter Melanie (after her grandmother), and in a powerful soliloquy tells the story of that grandmother's strength and fearlessness when facing a band of angry white men.

Other women from the building reveal bruises inflicted either by the men in their lives, or by the world in general. Cora Lee (Phyllis Stickney) continues to have children because she wants the dependency of infants; once they become toddlers her interest in them falters. By the end of the series, however, she begins to see the importance of all her children, and after being prodded by Kiswana, she attends the neighborhood production of an African American adaptation of a Shakespearean play. Through this experience and her children's reaction to it, the audience sees a change in Cora Lee.

Miss Sophie (Olivia Cole), an unhappy woman and the neighborhood busybody, spreads vicious gossip about her neighbors in the tenement. Etta Mae (Jackee), Mattie's earthy, flamboyant and loyal childhood friend, moved to Brewster Place for refuge from her many failed romances. Lucielia Louise Turner, housewife and mother (Lynn Whitfield), lived a somewhat happy life with her husband Ben (Moses Gunn) and daughter Serena in one of the tenement apartments until Ben lost his job and left home. Lucielia then aborted their second child and her daughter Serena was electrocuted when she used a fork to chase a roach into a light socket. Theresa and Lorraine (Paula Kelly and Lonette McKee) decided to reside on Brewster Place because, as lesbians, they were seeking some place where they could live without ridicule and torment. Their relationship, soon discovered by their neighbors, became the backdrop for the drama's finale.

Criticism of the miniseries began before the drama aired. The Naional Association for the Advancement of Colored People requested review of the scripts before production to determine whether the negative images of the African-American male, present in the Naylor book, appeared in the television drama. This request was denied, but Winfrey, also concerned with the image of black men in the novel, altered several of their roles. Ben Turner, the tenement's janitor and a drunk in Naylor's novel, was revamped for the teleplay, and in a scene created for especially for the series, explains why he felt pressed into desertion. The producers also attempted to cast actors who could bring a level of sensitivity to the male roles and create characters who were more than one dimensional villains.

Still, newspaper columnist Dorothy Gilliam criticized the drama in a two part series for the Washington Post, as one of the most stereotype-ridden polemics against black men ever seen on television, a series which, moreover, trotted out nearly every stereotype of black men that had festered in the mind of the most feverish racist. In spite of such criticism the series won its time period Sunday and Monday nights against heavy competition, The Wizard of Oz on CBS and a Star Wars installment, Return of the Jedi, on NBC.

Though criticized for its portrayal of African American men and women The Women of Brewster Place offered its audience a rare glimpse of America's black working class and conscientiously attempted to probe the personal relationships, dreams, and desires of a group of women who cared about their children and friends, who worked long hours at jobs they may have hated in order to survive, and who moved forward despite their disappointments. A spin-off of the miniseries titled Brewster Place, also produced by Harpo, Inc. aired for a few weeks in 1990 on ABC, but was canceled because low ratings.

-Bishetta Merritt

 


Women of Brewster Place

CAST

Mattie Michael .........................................Oprah Winfrey
Etta Mae Johnson ..............................................Jackee
Mrs. Browne ..............................................Cicely Tyson
Kiswana Browne ........................................Robin Givens
Lorraine................................................ Lonette McKee
Cora Lee.............................................. Phyllis Stickney
Ben.......................................................... Moses Gunn
Butch Fuller ............................................Clark Johnson
Ciel ........................................................Lynn Whitfield
Basil ..........................................................Eugene Lee
Mattie's Father.......................................... Paul Winfield
Mattie's Mother .............................................Mary Alice
Eva Turner ....................................Barbara Montgomery
Reverend Wood ............................Douglas Turner Ward
Miss Sophie .................................................Olivia Cole

PRODUCERS Oprah Winfrey, Carole Isenberg

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

ABC
March 19-20, 1989                                         9:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Bobo, Jacqueline, and Ellen Seiter. "Black Feminism and Media Criticism: The Women of Brewster Place." Screen (Glasgow, Scotland), Autumn 1991.

Kort, Michele. "Lights, Camera, Affirmative Action." Ms. Magazine (New York), November, 1988.

 

See also Racism, Ethnicity, and Television; Winfrey, Oprah