Women Play the Lead on Great Performances

June 12, 2020

Great Performances shines a spotlight three plays in which women play the leading roles. Two premieres are about women whose lives easily fill a stage: Ann (Friday June 19, 9 p.m.) starring Holland Taylor, and Gloria: A Life (Friday, June 26, 9 p.m.), starring Christine Lahti. The other acclaimed theatrical production is an encore of Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deveare Smith, who captures the observations, doubts and passion of 40 Los Angeles residents as they reflect on violence and identity in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The plays and performers themselves are part of a summer-long celebration of female trailblazers in honor of the women’s vote centennial.

Great Performances: Ann

Friday June 19, 9 p.m.

Former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the witty and flamboyant Democrat who went from homemaker to national political celebrity, burst onto the national scene at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where she famously said in a keynote address, “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Neither partisan nor political, Ann is a no-holds-barred theatrical portrait of the inimitable Ann Richards, who served as Governor of Texas from 1991-95. Written and performed by Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men, The Front Page, Netflix’s Hollywood series), the play is a compelling look at the impassioned, inspiring woman who enriched the lives of her followers, friends and family.

Beginning with a commencement address, the play bursts into a blistering day in the life of the governor, with a cascade of task-wrangling and conversations with everyone from Richards’ friend Bill Clinton to her grandbaby Lily. We see the grit, warmth and depth in her colorful, captivating character, bigger than the state from which she hails.

Directed for the stage by Benjamin Endsley Klein (Broadway credits include The Ferryman, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel) the production was recorded at the Zach Theater in Austin, Texas, following its national tour and Broadway run at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2013.

Taylor’s critically acclaimed performance earned her Tony, Drama Desk, and Drama League Award nominations.

“Through my whole adult life, PBS’s Great Performances has been the source and standard of the greatest classical and most elevated entertainment to be had,” said Taylor. “And now I’m uniquely honored and thrilled, as the stage performance of my own play – surely the accomplishment of my life – is not only beautifully captured in live performance but given an exalted presentation by Great Performances itself.”

Great Performances: Gloria: A Life

Friday, June 26, 9 p.m.

“Don’t think about making women fit the world. Think about making the world fit women.” – Gloria Steinem

Co-founder of Ms. Magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus, Gloria Steinem is one of the most visible, passionate leaders of the women’s rights movement. Oprah Winfrey calls her “a visionary, an icon, a hero to millions of women and me.”

Academy, Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Christine Lahti (Evil, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles) portrays trailblazing feminist Gloria Steinem in Gloria: A Life.

Written by Tony Award nominee Emily Mann (Having Our Say), directed for the stage by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (Pippin), and produced by Pulitzer Prize- and 10-time Tony-winning producer Daryl Roth (Angels in America, Hello, Dolly!), the play features an all-women cast playing both male and female roles. Act one focuses on Steinem’s life and path to activism, while act two consists of a “talking circle” with the audience to discuss the play’s themes, moderated by Gloria Steinem herself – a unique theatrical format offering a forum for Steinem’s philosophy on the necessity of conversation as a catalyst for change.

“Gloria Steinem saved my life in the early 70s. She helped give me feminism, which became a life jacket for me to navigate through a world that didn’t like or respect women very much,” said Lahti. “I feel it’s illuminating, for young people especially, to see how someone like Gloria who was ‘unwoke’ until she was 35 – and survived a difficult childhood with a mother who she felt didn’t matter – could become a world leader who has dedicated herself to making sure all women matter.”

Great Performances: Twilight: Los Angeles

Friday, July 3 at 10 p.m. Streaming now.

In response to the national crisis in the aftermath of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery (Brunswick, GA), Breonna Taylor (Louisville, KY), and most recently George Floyd (Minneapolis, MN), THIRTEEN will rebroadcast Marc Levin’s film adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, which originally premiered on PBS in 2001. In her acclaimed one-woman show, Smith gives voice to 40 real-life “characters,” from a Korean grocer to a Hollywood agent and a juror. Her performance is an account of what and how these people spoke to her in hundreds of interviews.

The play bare people’s reactions to racism and violence in Los Angeles. From unpublicized incidents to the beating of Rodney King in 1991, to the 1992 riots that erupted when the police officers who attacked King were acquitted, Smith portrays the witnesses, the victims, and the culpable. Interweaving Smith’s virtuoso performance with documentary interviews and footage of then contemporary Los Angeles, award-winning director Marc Levin (Slam, Whiteboys, Thug Life in DC, Brick City, Street Time) deftly transforms Smith’s work from stage to screen.

When Anna Deavere Smith’s drama Twilight: Los Angeles premiered in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum, it made national news for its unique and unflinching look at the fallout from the Los Angeles riots. Not only did Smith capture the tumultuous aftermath of the Rodney King trial verdict, she created a searing, innovative and truly American piece of theater.

Assessing the literature of those riots on April 22, 2012, Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wrote, “the most comprehensive literary response to the riots remains Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” a theater piece, written and performed by an outsider who channels the cacophony of voices at the city’s heart.”

In a YouTube video talk on June 8, 2020 about the history of her works, Smith says “my work is about identity. It is through identity, and specificity about identities, that I disrupt racism.”

Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles played around the U.S. and on Broadway, directed by George C. Wolfe. It received two Tony nominations, an Obie, Drama Desk Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle’s Special Citation and numerous other honors.

Great Performances: Ann and Gloria: A Life will be available to stream following each broadcast, here, and on the THIRTEEN Explore app (thirteen.org/explore). Twilight: Los Angeles is streaming now. Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #GreatPerformancesPBS.

See more upcoming broadcasts about trailblazing women, including Mae West, Toni Morrison and more.