A drama that breaks the mold of formula TV writing
New York — American television seldom manages to lure top creative writers to the small screen. By and large, the serious writing talent goes elsewhere - to cinema and to theater, mainly. And TV tends to be left to the glib and the prolific, the often technically talented but sometimes uninspired writers who can conform to standard patterns.
For the past six years, the only network creative competition that has offered as a prize to new playwrights the opportunity to see their work produced on the air has been the ABC Theatre Award - organized through the New Drama for Television Project at the National Playwright's Conference, held at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn.
The 1982 winner - Ghost Dancing (ABC, Monday, 9-11 p.m.)m - by Phil Penningroth, is an admirable attempt to break the familiar social-crisis-of-the-week mold of made-for-television movies by focusing on characterization and commitment. It concerns the attempt of ''the widow Bowman'' to stop the city from destroying her valley by tapping its water table.
She is a woman committed to a cause - so ''committed'' that she is willing to dynamite a reservoir (no one was hurt) and go to jail in order to call attention to it. Defending her is her native-American adopted daughter, willing to give up her position as assistant district attorney and her status in the white world in order to fight her battle. Throughout this disturbing play, however, there runs a thread of doubt - uncertainty that what is being fought may actually be a battle against the inevitability called progress.
Dorothy McGuire, in the role of the widow, is just a mite too chic and attractive for a role that calls for a rough-and-tumble latter-day Bette Davis type. She tries to be tough - but somehow she can't quite manage to shuck that dainty white-glove image. In the role of the American Indian daughter, Victoria Racimo plays with complete believability a young woman torn between two cultures , two sets of allegiances.
''Ghost Dancing'' is a powerful environmental drama of hope for the future somehow coexisting peacefully with the past. There is, however, a sad overlay of resignation to the futility of trying to hold on to the green, fertile days. It is as ambivalent in its message as the Indian in this society, symbolized by an aging Paiute who vainly teaches white boys the traditional dances because Indian youths are too busy traipsing about on their dirt bikes. Chat with Miss Racimo
Often, in recent years, when a TV or movie script has called for any ''exotic'' romantic- type female - be it native American, Latin-American, Filipino, or Vietnamese - Hollywood has turned to Victoria Racimo. In real life she comes across as intelligent and interestingly beautiful.
Recently we chatted about her actual ethnic background. ''My mother is Lenape Indian from Pennsylvania. It's a very small tribe from southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. But it was a word in the New York Times crossword puzzle recently.
''Lenapes are a small part of the Mohawks, almost extinct now. They have intermarried and there is no reservation. My mother is actually part English and Irish as well. My father's background is Spanish and Filipino. But I was born and raised in New York. Is that exotic enough?''
Miss Racimo is happy that stories that treat native Americans fairly, like ''Ghost Dancing'' and a forthcoming (in October) ABC miniseries, ''Mystic Warrior,'' are finally being done. And she's especially glad that she has been cast in them.
She is probably best remembered for her role as an American Indian in a 1971 Tom Gries film, ''Journey Through Rosebud,'' which has since become a ''lost'' cult favorite. She's also well known for her role as a Vietnamese wife in ABC-TV's prizewinning ''Green Eyes,'' in 1977.
''Right from its beginning, Hollywood preyed on native Americans,'' Miss Racimo said. ''In the early cowboy-and-Indian films, the Indian was always portrayed as a savage. Almost no shows ever represented the Indian honestly. Few ever tried to raise the consciousness of Americans in regard to how Indians really lived, who they really are. Of course, it's a matter of perspective, too. Take Wounded Knee. The military calls it a battle. But we call it a massacre.''
Is she pleased about ''Mystic Warrior,'' which is a miniseries version of the best-selling novel ''Hanta Yo''?
''Oh, yes. Because it is more than a history of the Dakotas. It is about a warrior who fights for more than aggrandizement. He's fighting for peace. It is a story about so-called progress and how the introduction of the gun was the downfall of some Indian tribes.
''I play the matriarch. And I think that 'Mystic Warrior' will prove to be the most honest portrayal of Indians ever shown on TV. Have you ever seen Indians really laugh in films except when they were drinking whiskey? Or be warm in a family way? In this miniseries you will see them in real situations, cooking, laughing, embracing. In need of one another. In love with one another. Without whiskey. Without guns. Without the white man's cavalry. Still, it shows how they had to break up in order to survive.''
Miss Racimo feels good about the character she plays in ''Ghost Dancing,'' too, although it is very different from the ''Mystic'' role. ''I portray a thoroughly modern woman - it's the kind of role which could have been played by any kind of woman, Indian or white. She's integrated into the community although she has not shed her heritage. I like that.''
While Miss Racimo is very definite about the need to portray native Americans more realistically to preserve their heritage, she is just a bit ambivalent about the role of the native American in our society today.
''I think the Indians will always remain apart. They are attached to the land. And this country is becoming one large city, so they must remain out of the inner circle. The return of their native lands is only fair. Of course, they need health care and education, too, and they must have access to the cities for that.
''But on the other hand, the reservation is a very strange concept, because it separates them from contemporary society. It gives them what they think they want, but it also keeps them in a unique and isolated status.
''I believe there has to be a cutoff point for restitution. You can only bleed the country so long. And by being given monetary compensation, they're just being bought off. It's the same thing the early settlers did. Only the numbers are different.''
Next on Victoria Racimo's schedule is the film school at New York University, where she has been accepted for the summer semester. ''I would like to direct. I've always been writing. In fact I have a script that is getting a good reception out in California right now.''
About native Americans?
''Yes. About restitution. But I'm not hitting too hard because it's a comedy. Justice wins out in the end so, of course, the Indian gets his fair share.
''A fair share in America. A fair representation in films and television, that's all we want.'' Big Bird's slow boat to China
Big Bird has migrated a bit out of his flying range.
Big Bird in China (NBC, Sunday, 7-8:30 p.m., check local listings)m - a joint production of Children's Television Workshop and China Central Television - takes Big Bird on a marvelously varied tour of China. It starts in New York's Chinatown and continues on to many of China's most colorful sites. But Big Bird's voice, prattling all the way, began to grate on this viewer early in the extended travelogue.
Fortunately China, in the form of its landscapes, its culture, and the most delightful on-camera youngster since Shirley Temple tap-danced down the stairway with Bill Robinson, saved the day. Six-year-old Ouyang Lianzi swoops down on the gawky old bird and flies off with the whole show.
I must admit I feel guilty saying ''Bah, Humbug'' to Big Bird, however, because the youngsters will probably love every moment of this show. But adults may yearn to turn the dial to ''60 Minutes.''
If there is one lesson to be learned from this special, it is that Big Birds should be served in small portions. And as Miss Piggy herself might say, ''I have news for vous, 'Sesame Street,' your Big Bird simply does not have the charisma of moi.''