Friday, February 12, 2010

FLASHBACK: Ellen Holly 1969, Part Two

Living a White Life -- for a While (Part Two)

By Ellen Holly
New York Times
August 10, 1969

Read Part One here

Finally, we got to the switch. In an ingenious script whose parallel cutting was almost as well done as Hitchcock's tennis game sequence in "Strangers on a Train," I met up with the black mother I had abandoned nine years before (a major character, who had already been well established in the story line long before I was, and played by Lillian Hayman of "Hallelujah, Baby" fame). People were genuinely surprised. Most found it absorbing. Others were fascinated by the way all the pieces fit. There were, of course, the inevitable ones who found it hard to take. Now that I was revealed to be black, in retrospect they found it O.K. that I had kissed the black doctor, but intolerable that I had kissed and been engaged to the white one.

It is now several months since the switch. Presumably, people would have made emotional adjustments they felt necessary and settled down. Still, there are those who call the show from time to time to check and make sure that a black actress rather than a white one is playing the part. Whether it's a black person checking to make sure that a soul sister wasn't done out of a job, or a white person checking to make sure a white actress isn't playing opposite a black actor, is never clear. What is clear is that it's going to be a great day when America ceases to be obsessed with color. Its paranoia about the subject borders on ridiculous.

I love my job. Jack Wood and Dan Wallace direct the show with a special care of things. The actors are some of the best around. The writer, Agnes Nixon, is more sensitive to the vibrations of prejudice than almost any white I've ever met and I think three of four of the episodes have been more relevant to life and real concerns that any I ever dealt with during a decade in theater. The tedious but necessary aspects of soap opera are definitely present - exposition to help newcomers catch up on the plot lines, dull stretches, repetition. But within the framework of the genre surprisingly much has gotten said - among other things, that blacks pass for white not because they value whiteness per se, but rather they value the special rights and privileges that unfairly accrue to whiteness; that prejudice works any number of ways and a light-skinned black will often cross the line, not in a flight toward whiteness, but in a flight away from the constant, sometimes brutal rejections by his own. All true. What is more, these things are not said in message terms that bore, but in human terms that compel attention. New as it is, ONE LIFE TO LIVE has one of the highest ratings of any soap on the air. Not only because of this story line, but because of several things equally well done, including the major one about some swanky goings on on the Philadelphia Main Line.

I love the job, but I have one major regret. An actress on a soap is identified with the character she plays more closely than in any other format. After a lifetime of living as black even though it meant constant insult and instances of risking actual physical danger in the South, I find it ironic that my first national exposure as an actress is as a black girl who made things easier for herself by passing for white. Most of all, I regret living in a world where I have to have that kind of a concern. I have been militantly black all my life, because my country's paranoia about the subject of color forces one to stand up and be counted one way or another. But I look forward to the day when America believes that the relevant thing about me is not that I am black but that I am Ellen.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Agnes Nixon first saw Ellen Holly when Holly wrote into The New York Times the year before after an African American actor was criticized for not playing his role as a "real Negro." Nixon read the story, saw Holly's philosophy and facial features, and knew immediately that she was perfect to play the role of Carla.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting.
    Makes me think of AMC's Julia Santos & Noa Keefer around 94-96. I believe they were a popular pairing. They probably got flack too but they made it on screen.