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Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding

February 19, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ The scene is Martha’s Vineyard in 1953. And while the elegant summer homes on this Massachusetts island may look familiar to mainstream TV audiences, the neighborhood known as ``The Oval″ probably won’t be.

The exclusive circle of doctors, lawyers and business owners are not Boston Brahmin or even white nouveau riche.They’re professional blacks from long-established, upper-class families. And they fiercely guard the gates to their insular country-club community, where membership, as in other high-society circles, is earned through ``proper″ background and breeding.

Inspired by the Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs, a resort community still frequented by black professionals, The Oval serves as the backdrop for ``The Wedding.″ This is a Dorothy West novel that Oprah Winfrey fell in love with and made into a miniseries to be shown Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.

West, 90, the last survivor of black artists in the 1920s and ’30s who belonged to the Harlem Renaissance, has lived in Oak Bluffs since 1943. ``The Wedding,″ published in 1995, was her first novel in 47 years, and the last book Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis edited at Doubleday.

The TV version of ``The Wedding,″ starring Halle Berry and Lynn Whitfield, is the second in a series of made-for-TV films to appear on ABC under the ``Oprah Winfrey Presents″ banner.

It centers on a young black woman’s struggle to define her role in a family that has yet to come to terms with its history oftroubled black-white marriages, intraracial discrimination and the pursuit of social status at whatever cost.

Berry plays 23-year-old Shelby Coles, the beautiful, light-skinned daughter of privileged black parents who spend their summers at The Oval. And she is engaged to marry a struggling white musician, Meade Howell (Eric Thal).

The match is not viewed favorably in The Oval: When Shelby and Meade stroll down the street, elderly women on front porches cluck their disapproval and remark on the poor judgment of a woman who could have had her pick of black men with ``appropriate″ credentials.

Shelby must also face conflicting signals from her family, with views shaped by a history of failures and disappointments when it comes to love and marriage.

Shelby’s parents, Clark and Corinne Coles, married for social reasons. Clark (Michael Warren) wed Corinne (Whitfield) because he knew a ``trophy wife″ would be the ticket to professional success. Left behind was the lower-class, darker-skinned woman he really loved.

Amid this emotional chaos, Shelby must sort out her motivation for marrying Meade (Love? Skin color?) and her simultaneous attraction to Lute McNeil (Carl Lumbly), a successful, dark-skinned black man who has rented a house across the street from her parents.

Berry, who had the title role in the 1993 miniseries ``Alex Haley’s `Queen,‴ did not hesitate when Winfrey asked her to play the lead.

``I loved the book. I loved the character, and I thought it was an important role,″ she said in a telephone interview. ``This is a piece of black history that’s not taught in history class. I didn’t even know that these wealthy, well-educated people lived in Martha’s Vineyard and had this kind of life.″

The story also resonated with the 29-year-old Berry, who is the daughter of a white mother and black father. ``It hit home with me, the feeling of being an outcast in your own family at times. ... I didn’t have to stretch to have those feelings, because I’ve lived with them in my own life. ... They’re inside.″

Kate Forte, executive vice president of development and production for Winfrey’s Harpo Films, defined the movie’s message succinctly. ``Class and color are false distinctions, but love is not. This movie is as much about class as it is about color,″ she said. ``That’s what’s really interesting.″

In choosing projects, Forte said she and Winfrey look for ``compelling, unpredictable stories″ aligned with their beliefs and values.

``We try to find things that show people’s individual responsibility ... to affect their world,″ she said. ``I do think it’s an extension of what Oprah does on a daily basis, which is to help people look at their lives differently and to open up their hearts a little wider.″

___

Elsewhere in television ...

`ELMOPALOOZA!’: In a musical tribute to 30 years of ``Sesame Street,″ host Jon Stewart is joined by an all-star cast in a musical extravaganza featuring classic ``Sesame Street″ songs. Original music videos are performed by Elmo and other Jim Henson Muppets, together with some of today’s hottest (human) performers including David Alan Grier, Gloria Estefan, En Vogue, The Fugees, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Alison Bartlett O’Reilly. It’s called ``Elmopalooza!″ and it airs Friday at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.

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