Bringing the Great Depression home TELEVISION PREVIEW

November 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

An hour isn't a lot of time to tell the story of the Great Depression. But Maryland Public Television does much with the time it has in "Maryland in the Great Depression" at 9 tonight on channels 22 and 67.

The report is a locally produced companion piece to "The Great Depression," which was made by WGBH in Boston and aired nationally on PBS last month. MPT's production focuses on Maryland in the 1930s.

It starts with historians telling us about the political figures of the day, such as Gov. Albert Ritchie.

As a result of Gov. Ritchie's rigid self-help politics and suspicion of the federal government, residents of Maryland received almost no aid during the Depression's darkest days despite the fact that some was available.

Such historical facts have a certain intellectual or abstract power of their own. But they often are not felt emotionally until they are personalized.

"Maryland in the Great Depression" wastes no time in bringing everyday people before the camera to talk about what those decisions meant to their lives in a way that usually makes the facts very personal.

Wilson Hess, a farmer from Har- ford County, talks about how he once dumped heads of cabbage on Lombard Street in Baltimore so that the hundreds of homeless people picking through garbage there might have something to eat.

And, as he remembers those days and those people, Hess starts to cry.

Another historian, Morgan State's Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, tells us about lynchings of African-Americans on the Eastern Shore in the '30s.

There are newspaper clippings and still photographs to accompanyher analysis.

But, again, it is not until a witness comes before the cameras and tells us what he saw as a child that the horror of those events starts to resonate through your bones.

Joseph Hayman says he saw the remains of the victim lying in a lumber yard in Princess Anne after the man had been lynched, burned and left lying in the dirt overnight.

"After seeing that body, there was nothing but fear in my heart," Hayman says.

Throughout the report, producer Helen Jean Burn strikes a nice balance between what narrator Betsy Ames calls the "reflections of those who studied" the Depression and the "memories of those who lived through it."

In the end, the best thing about "Maryland in the Great Depression" is the range of voices heard.

Like the national series, it includes the experiences of women, African-Americans, small farmers, labor organizers and members of some of the other groups so noticeably absent from earlier histories thathewed to the white, male hegemony.

The report's main flaw is the failure to achieve one, overwhelming, narrative and emotional movement that builds until it explodes into a final moment of clarity and distilled emotion.

But that's not an awful problem. Few documentaries accomplish that.

"Maryland in the Great Depression" covers a lot of territory in just an hour.

It takes us from one-room country shacks in St. Mary's County, to the New Deal's grand plan for public housing in suburban Greenbelt.

From the Royal Theater in Baltimore, to the coal mines and glass factories of Allegany County, it's a rewarding TV journey.

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