Short stories from the South make penetrating dramas

Tales of the Unknown South PBS, Sunday, 10-11 p.m. (Check local time.) Dramatization of two short stories: ``Ashes,'' by Julia Peterkin, and ``Neighbors,'' by Diane Oliver. These two tales of the ``unknown South'' are just that - stories that avoid the clich'ed views of outsiders and instead let you see old folkways and modern struggles through the eyes of the South's own people. The approach is gentle in style, quietly penetrating, and utterly natural in tone. And the dramas have a real short-story flavor about them, with sly twists of plot that allow quick, deep looks into human nature.

``Ashes'' - from a collection called ``Green Thursday,'' by the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Carolina author Julia Peterkin - was written in 1924 and tells of a poor old black woman named Maum, who is told she has to leave her little house in the country. It seems a well-dressed young white man - an early equivalent of a yuppie - wants to build his home nearby and needs her place for his cook to live in. As the construction crew arrives and begins building, Maum goes about her business as if nothing is happening. When she prays for help and then does something rash, the final result - unexpected but wholly plausible - shows how human understanding can transcend racial differences.

Moving at an easy pace, as if taking its time in the warm sun, the production is full of the sounds and feeling of the rural South, including accents that may take some sharp listening. At the center is the ancient and elemental figure of Maum (Rosanna Carter), a folk symbol of indomitability. She says little, but her compelling, broad-cheekboned face is a tragic mask that seems to sum up the hard life of the country poor.

``Neighbors'' jumps to 1963 and the Southern civil rights movement. Diane Oliver's short story about young Tommy, the first black student to enter an all-white Southern school sees things through the eyes of a black family - and especially their grown daughter. Its concern is neither the ideology nor the tactics of integration, but family values and human need.

Through big and small signs you can feel how frightening a challenge this is to his family - like his mother's anguished tears and cry of ``He's so little.''

It's a crisis seen from the private side rather than the familiar public image of today - police, crowds, confrontations. Like ``Ashes,'' this story reads the meaning of a conflict in the daily life of its victims. In a charming scene showing Tommy's older sister bathing him and putting him to bed, the handsome and vulnerable young boy is like an unblemished lamb ready to be sacrificed to a social cause. Why should this small innocent pay the price for the passions of the two sides, you wonder.

The family's answer ends this piece on a note of wisdom and hope, with a sad recognition of harsh realities in the background.

In both stories - ``Ashes'' and ``Neighbors'' - blacks live in a hostile white world. But there's a revealing difference in black attitudes between the two periods. Faced with a challenge, Maum's only recourse is furtive action and the connivance of a white sherriff, whereas the family in ``Neighbors'' can at least try actively to shape their own place in society.

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