'A Christmas Carol," the classic ghost story by Charles Dickens, continues to haunt the season and speak about individual transformation. The tale of nasty old Scrooge and his spirited redeemers has been told and retold, adapted, modified, and even reconstructed so radically it has owed only the bare outline of the story to Dickens.
Yet, even the bare outline of the original is remarkably powerful, touching us with hope for change in ourselves and others. And each Christmas season, many of us continue to look for the story, trying on new versions and comparing them with the original.
Now the tale has evolved once more: The USA Network special "Ms. Scrooge" portrays the famous scoundrel as African-American and female - and somewhat less terrifying, but no less wicked. Updated to the present, the "grasping, greedy, covetous old sinner" is a loan shark keeping her Bob Cratchit in tow with economic blackmail. Starring one of the grand dames of stage, screen, and television, Cicely Tyson, the show has its charms - though the scariness has been blown away in favor of a softly humorous approach.
During her long acting career, Tyson has usually played admirable women. In a recent telephone interview, she talked about why she wanted to play the character whose name is synonymous with coldhearted avarice.
"I thought it would be an interesting challenge," she says. "I have always been aware of the story since childhood. But I think what impressed me was the fact that people could be so blind about the difference between good and evil and allow it to affect their lives in such a way that it [could destroy them]. But I have known people who are Scrooge-like, and it isn't until they are faced with something that jolts them into the realization of what is important in life that they are fortunate enough to turn their lives around."
She jokes about the rest of the cast and crew being surprised at her playing such a mean character. But, she says, it was a thrilling change.
"An actor's job is to play every sort of character," she says. "But when I first started in this business, I ran into a situation that made me rein in and say, 'Hey wait a minute: There is something going on in this society that I need to address, and I will find a way in my career to address it.' And that was the kind of bigotry that existed in this country toward blacks and particularly toward black women. I recognized the fact that I had to find a way to make a contribution to educating people to - humanism, if you will.
"I have spent virtually 25 years doing this," she says, "and hopefully I have made an impact on our society. And I am at a stage in my life and in my career where I would just like to enjoy being able to play roles I consider fun and challenging.... One of my concerns [about 'Ms. Scrooge'] was the fact that it was going to be a black woman - add to that the meanness and selfishness of the character. I was worried about that, and what I tried to do is add a little humor - to temper the meanness with humor."
But the theme of redemption lies close to her heart. She says we are living in a very difficult time, and "we need to be redeemed and redeemed and redeemed. This is the time for redemption if we hope to survive in any degree of normalcy."
* 'Ms. Scrooge' airs Dec. 10, 9-11 p.m., on USA.