'Fresh Air' remembers Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and civil rights icon
Belafonte starred in films and helped popularize calypso music in the U.S. in the 1950s. In the '60s he became a civil rights activist. He died April 25. Originally broadcast in 1993.
Other segments from the episode on April 27, 2023
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Harry Belafonte, the famous singer, actor, producer and civil rights activist, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 96. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him in 1993. His obituary in The New York Times said, quote, "at a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte's ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic," unquote.
In an appreciation in the Times, Wesley Morris described Belafonte as a folk hero, quote, "he understood how to dedicate his fame to a politics of accountability more tenaciously than any star of the civil rights era or in its wake. He helped underwrite the Civil Rights Movement, paying for freedom rides. He maintained a life insurance policy on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Coretta Scott King as the beneficiary because Dr. King didn't believe he could afford it," unquote. Belafonte helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, at which Dr. King gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Harry Belafonte first became known in the U.S. as a singer with his 1956 hits "Jamaica Farewell" and "The Banana Boat Song." He popularized calypso in America.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O (THE BANANA BOAT SONG)")
HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day, is a day, is a day, is a day, is a day, is a day-o. Daylight come, and we want go home. Work all night on a drink of rum. Daylight come, and we want go home. Stack banana till the morning come. Daylight come, and we want go home. Come mister tally man, tally me banana. Daylight come, and we want go home. Come mister tally man, tally me banana. Daylight come, and we want go home. Lift six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch. Daylight come, and we want go home. Six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch. Daylight come, and we want go home. Day, is a day-o. Daylight come, and we want go home. Day...
GROSS: In the 1950s, Belafonte started his film career starring in such movies as "Carmen Jones" and "Odds Against Tomorrow." But there were few roles for Black actors then. And in the '60s, Belafonte shifted his attention to the Civil Rights Movement while continuing to act and to appear on TV. He was born in New York to a Jamaican mother and a father from Martinique. When he was 5, his mother sent him to Jamaica. He told me why when we spoke in 1993.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BELAFONTE: Well, my mother was - my father was constantly away. She was, for all intents and purposes, a single parent. She was a domestic worker, a woman who was struggling to get over as an immigrant in this country. Her children were left to the whims of the neighborhood and to the streets of New York. And at a very early age, I was hit by an automobile...
BELAFONTE: ...And was unconscious for a couple of days at - in Harlem Hospital. And that sent a horror through my mother. And she felt that I would perhaps be safer in the mountains of Jamaica than I would be in the streets of New York and sent my brother and myself there.
GROSS: What did you think of the idea of going to Jamaica?
BELAFONTE: Well, I didn't mind the idea of going to Jamaica. What really bothered me was the fact that my mother had to leave us there. And once again, there we were, thrust into the midst of strangers and people whom we didn't know and having to make it on our own, so to speak. And plus, the fact that we never stayed in one place very long. My brother and I were quite nomadic. We just went from place to place and never really established a sense of community and never stayed long enough with one family to have ourselves in some centered place.
GROSS: Were the families that you stayed with part of your extended family, or were they strangers?
BELAFONTE: Both. Both extended family, as well as some strangers.
GROSS: Why didn't you stay in one place for a long time?
BELAFONTE: I think it was a matter of economics. I think some people found two additional children to their own families a bit of a burden. They were poor, so we were constantly shifted from place to place so that others could help share the responsibility. Some places we were just very unhappy in and didn't want to stay and were sent to other places.
GROSS: Now, how did you get back to New York?
BELAFONTE: Well, the war broke out between England and Germany. My mother was convinced that - like many people were - that the invincible Nazi machine was going to soon conquer England. And what would happen to all of the English possessions, all of their colonies? And she feared for that and then brought us back home when I was 12, and I've been living in America ever since.
GROSS: Was it hard to readjust to Harlem?
BELAFONTE: Very hard. I had an accent from the Caribbean, and I looked different. And I had this dyslexic problem that I couldn't adjust to the schools that I was in, and my mother seemed to have - has been very much part of that shifting from place to place to place to place. We lived all over the city within the ghetto in which we were forced to live, and we moved from one neighborhood to another neighborhood, and my mother was always chasing work and chasing places where she thought we would have better accommodations for less money. So we were constantly on the move.
GROSS: So how were you first exposed to theater?
BELAFONTE: When I came out of the Second World War, I was kind of looking for where to go and what to do. And in the interim, I became a janitor's assistant in a building, and I repaired the Venetian blinds in the apartment of a young woman by the name of Clarice Taylor, who was known by many people as the mother of Mr. Huxtable on "The Bill Cosby Show." And she played the Good Witch in "The Wiz." She was the tenant in the apartment. And I repaired the Venetian blinds. She gave me two tickets to a play at a community theater called the American Negro Theatre, which was at the Harlem Public Library. And I'd never been to the theater before, and I had this opportunity, so I went. And when the lights went down and the curtain opened and the players walked on, a whole new world opened up for me, and I was deeply touched and moved by it. That's how I got into theater.
GROSS: Could you explain what it was that really reached you about the performance?
BELAFONTE: I saw people of color on a stage articulating a point of view on a subject. And I found it quite magical. And I - mostly, I saw people in motion doing things that were very positive and very creative. And I loved the rhythm of the playwright, the way the language flowed or the way people answered and spoke to one another. I became totally involved. As a matter of fact, at the end of the play, I went back to thank her for the ticket, and I had to stand with a long line of people 'cause it was the closing night of the play. And it was a repertory format, and they were getting ready to set up the next play and were taking down the sets.
So I pitched in to help take down the sets. And - because I could - I was good with my hands. And I didn't start off wanting to be a performer, I started off just wanting to be involved. And then they came up with a play for the techs to begin to dismantle, to find out how to make us build a set for it. And the play was Sean O'Casey's "Juno And The Paycock." And I became exposed to this Irish playwright, who was, I thought, one of the most incredible writers that I'd ever read. And I had not read that much up to that point.
GROSS: So when you started to study acting, how did you work on yourself to kind of transform yourself into an actor both in terms of the craft but also in terms of the type of person you thought an actor needed to be?
BELAFONTE: Well, when we got the play, my job was to work with a group of young men and women to build sets, and they needed someone to play the young male lead in the play. And they didn't have anybody within - either in the school at the American Negro Theater or - and those who had auditioned they found were somewhat unacceptable. So they asked me would I play it. And I just - and in the spirit of teamwork, I accepted being a performer to perform this part. And when I had to learn the words and then get into the play, then I was deeply touched by the fact that I now had an opportunity to interpret and to articulate the words of this great writer.
And I wanted to do more of that, and I wanted to become proficient in the ability to be able to do that. And in order to acquire this proficiency, I had to go to an institution that was committed fully and solely to this. And it was the New School of Social Research. Irwin Piscator, who ran the school, was a German Jew who had escaped Hitler. He was at the Max Reinhardt Theater in Germany. He introduced us to Bertolt Brecht and to Jean-Paul Sartre, and he brought a richness of literature and culture to the school. Many people sought to be in his class, and among my classmates were Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis - just a bunch of us, all young kids just starting out, young men and women wanting to be in theater. And it was in that environment that I developed this great love and comfortability, really, with the idea of being an actor.
GROSS: Once you fell in love with theater and then got your theater training and developed into an actor, were you able to find parts?
BELAFONTE: No. That was the irony of it all. I then had to deal with racial reality. No matter how much I loved this thing, if I didn't play in the American Negro Theater or once every millennium when a Black play came along, most of which were musicals, there would be no opportunity, really, on a full-time basis. So I was quite prepared to flirt with the theater and to do as much as I could in it while looking for some work that would give me the opportunity to pay the rent. Before I could even deal with that, I ran out of the federal subsidy that was given to us to learn, to be in this school.
GROSS: From the G.I. Bill.
BELAFONTE: Yeah, G.I. Bill of Rights. And what happened was that I was a frequent visitor and a devotee of jazz and a frequent visitor to a place called the Royal Roost. And I went there nightly because our school was only two blocks away from the nightclub in the middle of the heart of Broadway. And I struck up a friendship with a young man named Monte Kay. And he was the promoter and the impresario for everything that went on in that club. And he had heard me sing in a school play only as an exercise for the play. And he then said to me, well, I've heard you sing. Why don't you learn a few songs? Come in to the club. I'll make you an intermission singer. And during that time you'll be able to make enough money to continue to pursue your studies in the school if the school will then give you a scholarship.
And I went to the administrators of the school, and they gave me a scholarship, and I started to sing to pay my way through school. The singing then got so popular, and people responded so strongly to it that I feared that it would take me away from the theater. And I didn't consider myself a significantly important jazz singer. I didn't find that pop music particularly moved me to the places that I wanted to go after this heavy encounter with Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Chekov and all the things we were doing as students.
So I quit, and - singing, and I opened up a small restaurant with a couple of other friends with the money that I'd saved called The Sage in Greenwich Village. And while there, studying during the day and working at night, I discovered the Village Vanguard, a nightclub in New York, which was rich with folk artists. And I discovered Leadbelly, and I discovered Big Bill Broonzy. And I discovered Pete Seeger. I discovered Woody Guthrie. And much to my amazement and delight, I discovered Josh White. I saw these men and women singing songs that came from all walks of life. It wasn't just songs about unrequited love. They were filled with drama. They were filled with characters. They were filled with parables and metaphor. And I saw in that the opportunity to apply my acting skills. And since I had a voice that was fairly comfortable to listeners, then I would then have the instrument to be able to do this. And I began to develop a repertoire. And with that, I then opened at the Village Vanguard, and I just haven't looked back since.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Harry Belafonte in 1993. Let's pause for a song from his 1958 album "Belafonte Sings The Blues."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY ANN")
BELAFONTE: (Singing) Well, hello, Mary Ann. You know, you sure look fine. Well, hello, Mary Ann. You know, you sure look fine. Well, hello, Mary Ann. I could love you all the time. Oh, Mary Ann, I say, baby, don't you know? Oh, Mary Ann, well, baby, don't you know? Don't you know, don't you know, pretty baby, that I love you so?
GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1993 interview with Harry Belafonte after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Harry Belafonte in 1993. He died Tuesday at the age of 96.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You were really one of the first people from the entertainment world to become active within the civil rights movement. Was there a period that was a turning point or a consciousness-raising period for you?
BELAFONTE: Yes, when I was born.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
BELAFONTE: And it was later on exercised even more when the war came, Second World War, and I got into it. And America propagandized us about ending totalitarianism and ending fascism, and ending racial superiority and ending anti-Semitism, and making the world perfect for a meaningful future. And I believed that. And when I came back to my home after having done a tour of duty and the war ended, we expected that there was going to be some reward for all that we had done, just little things like taking down the segregation signs as a gift to those of us who fought to make America safe and to end the world with, you know, from - end the world's tyranny. And that didn't happen. The option was to acquiesce and to go back to business as usual or to use our strength and our energy to make sure that America would never be comfortable in going back to business as usual. And I decided that that's what I would do as an artist and as a human being and as a person. That was when my activism started.
A lot of people who did not know that part of my life have made assumptions that it wasn't until I became famous that I then turned to social and political activity. But that's not true. Paul Robeson was a mentor of mine. I tried to pattern my life after what I saw him do, his dignity, his strength, his courage. Dr. Du Bois was someone whom I sought out. I met him accidentally, and I sought him out afterwards and listened to him speak and listened to his thoughts. He was one of the greatest intellects that this country ever produced and certainly one of the greatest in the Black community. And in that environment, these men were great social thinkers. Eleanor Roosevelt became a friend of mine. She, too, had her own thoughts on social and political conditions.
GROSS: How did you meet Martin Luther King?
BELAFONTE: He called me. I was in New York. And he was coming here to visit for the first time in Harlem at Adam Clayton Powell's church, the Abyssinian. He was talking to a group of people from the clergy and asked would I meet him after that meeting. And I said, yes. And we met in the basement of the church.
GROSS: And you became pretty good friends?
BELAFONTE: Very good friends, became very, very close after I spoke to him in the room and he told me of his mission and what he hoped to be able to achieve, albeit he didn't know quite where the path would lead us. But he knew that it was a fight that had to be made. And he needed everyone he could get and asked me if I would join. I said, yes, I would.
GROSS: You're about to perform in New York. How do you feel about the old songs that you recorded in the '50s?
BELAFONTE: I feel very good about them. I thought they were songs that were very much instructive. I thought they brought people to places that they had never been before. And I think it make them take focus on a group of people in a region that they perhaps knew nothing about. Paul Robeson once said to me, get people to sing your song and they must - then they'll be required to know who you are.
GROSS: There's a certain raspiness to your speaking voice. Does that come through in your singing voice, too, now?
BELAFONTE: No, because I engage different muscles. When I sing, my diaphragm kicks in more fully and I project more fully. I'm prone to talk softly. And air escapes because of a tilted larynx, which I have, which permits air to come out in a free-flow, uncontrolled way that I would not ordinarily have were my larynx straight. But it was an act of birth. And as a matter of fact, the print of my voice I like very much. It's like Louis Armstrong or others who have a voice that's just very different from everyone else's. And what it forced me to do was to interpret material in a way that would accommodate this impediment or this imperfection, and therefore gave me a very unique approach to my singing that people liked. And I loved it. And I took great confidence in the fact that one did not need - I think if you've got it, you should sound like a Pavarotti or sound like a Leontyne Price or whatever. But when I heard people like Walter Huston sing, who had a gruffy voice, and when I listened to other singers, I was confident that I could move comfortably in the world of art and be accepted for what I was.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for telling us some of your story. Thank you very much for being with us.
BELAFONTE: Thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Harry Belafonte was recorded in 1993. He died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 96. After we take a short break, we'll hear from a doula who works with pregnant women, whether they plan on giving birth or having an abortion. And David Bianculli will review the new eight-episode drama "Fatal Attraction," a reworking of the 1987 film of the same name. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATILDA")
BELAFONTE: (Singing) Hey. Matilda, Matilda, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Once again now. Matilda, Matilda, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Five hundred dollars, friends, I lost. Woman even sell me cat and horse. Hey, Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Everybody. Matilda. Sing out the chorus. Matilda. Sing a little louder. Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela. Once again now. Matilda - going around the corner. Matilda. Sing out the chorus. Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MIDNIGHT HOUR'S "BETTER ENDEAVOR")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Vicki Bloom, is a doula. Typically, doulas provide support for women during pregnancy and childbirth. But Bloom describes herself as a full-spectrum doula, working with people no matter how the pregnancy proceeds, whether it results in birth, miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. Since 2010, she's worked with The Doula Project, a New York City-based collective that partners with clinics to support pregnant people, whether the result is childbirth or termination. The doulas are volunteers, which enables The Doula Project to fulfill its goal of providing free emotional, physical and informational support to low-income women and to marginalized communities.
Bloom is a member of the Leadership Circle of The Doula Project. She says she's especially drawn to support people who may fall through the cracks of the medical system or feel unheard through the process of birth or abortion. Note to parents of young children - we're going to have an adult conversation about reproductive issues.
Vicki Bloom, welcome to FRESH AIR. Can you give us a brief overview of what the work is as a doula in childbirth and what the work is as a doula in abortion?
VICKI BLOOM: So a doula in general is a non-medical professional who provides pure support. They're not there in a medical role, so they're not doing any of the medical procedures. They're there for that person as a human being, as a person. In the birth experience, that may be helping them figure out what they want, helping them find their voice and helping them in the moment to moment to manage what's going on as they're giving birth. In the abortion context, it may look more like, again, physical comfort techniques. You bring a lot of the same physical techniques in. It might be massage, handholding, hot pads, cooling someone's brow. All of those things may come up again. But it's also, in that sense, holding space for that person, whatever they're feeling, letting them feel in the moment, helping them feel safe, helping them feel like they're having an experience that they need to have in a way that feels comforting to them.
GROSS: Are you seeing a lot more medical abortions because of the end of Roe, or have medical abortions just taken off because they're easier? Like, what kind of changes have you witnessed in the past few years?
BLOOM: Medication abortion has been on the rise for a number of years now. And at this point, more than half of early abortions in the United States are done via medication. One big change that happened is originally in most states, possibly all states - I'm not sure - but originally, if you go back a number of years, in order to have a medication abortion, you needed to go into a clinic or go to a provider. You'd have a consultation with that provider. And you would take the first pill, the mifepristone pill in the office. And then you would take the other pills, the misoprostol pills. You would take them home and take them at home 24 to 48 hours later, because that's the medical protocol.
But when the pandemic happened, there was a temporary federal law put in place that basically allowed medication abortion to happen entirely via telemedicine so that you could consult with the doctor over video or over the phone and have those pills mailed to you and then be able to complete the medication abortion entirely at home. And then in late 2021, that rule was made permanent. So in any state where you can have a medication abortion, they can do it via telemed. And that's the reason, actually, that The Doula Project developed this medication abortion hotline, which we have, which is a 24/7 hotline where people can text in and get support - from their medication abortion, because it's becoming more and more likely that they're completing that abortion from their home rather than from a clinic.
GROSS: Given how comparatively easy it seems to take, you know, a few pills as opposed to having a clinical abortion, which involves the suctioning of the uterus, why would anyone choose now to have an in-clinic abortion as opposed to a medication abortion?
BLOOM: I wouldn't necessarily say that a medication abortion is easier. It's different. When you go in for an aspiration abortion into a clinic, it's very fast. You go in, and the actual procedure can take less than 10 minutes. And then there may be some after-effects of some bleeding, some cramping, but it's quick. When you take a medication abortion, it's a few days of a procedure. You're going to take the first pill and then wait 24 to 48 hours. And that process of the uterus releasing its contents has a lot of bleeding, a lot of cramping, a lot of nausea sometimes. And it's physically a much rougher procedure, even if it's logistically for many people a much easier procedure and also a more private procedure.
GROSS: When you're working with a woman who is having an abortion, whether it's in clinic or medication, do you sometimes find that they still have doubts, that they're going through it, but part of their mind is still questioning it? And if so, what role do you play in helping them think it through?
BLOOM: I don't do a lot of choice counseling. By the time people come to me, they certainly usually have made a decision. But I find very frequently that I tell my clients that a right decision does not always feel like an easy decision. And I'm really with them through whatever talking through they want to do, whatever emotional experience they may be having. People have all kinds of emotional experiences during abortions. They may have a mix of relief and grief. They may be thinking about a what if even at the same time that they have made a decision that they feel comfortable with.
One thing that sometimes happens is that people who may have been politically not very supportive of abortion find themselves in a situation where they need an abortion and have decided to have one, but they have a lot of cognitive dissonance about that. And I am very compassionate about that because theoretical things and real things can feel very different to people. What I'm not compassionate about, and this does happen, is when someone comes in, gets the support, may have their abortion, and then may walk out to protest the next day.
GROSS: When you are working as a doula for somebody having an abortion and this person opposes abortion for political or religious or whatever other reasons, but feels it necessary to have one, what's the experience like for you? How do you work with them? What special needs do they have?
BLOOM: I'm often frustrated when I work with clients who have that orientation, but I do come to them with a lot of compassion because they're coming into that experience with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. They're going in doing something that they feel is necessary but also, in a certain sense, wrong. I have been in clinic and had a client say to me, I'm here because I have to be. How can you live with yourself when you wake up every morning and walk in here knowing that you're helping people kill their babies? It's hard to hear, for sure. It's hard to hear that kind of an attack. But I know that that person is really working through the fact that they feel that this is necessary and also, in a certain sense, that they're very uncomfortable for it.
I have very little tolerance, at least from a general basis, for people who think that they're different than somebody else who might have this procedure, who think that they're special somehow, because this is a common experience for a lot of people. And every person who comes to this has to come to it with sort of understanding what's going on with their body, what's going on with their world. But nevertheless, that person who is having to do something that, in a sense, they don't feel good about is somebody who's having a very hard time and who really needs a lot of compassion.
GROSS: With medication abortion, you know, you're taking the pills at home. What kind of support does a woman need when she's having that kind of abortion?
BLOOM: They might need all kinds of support. The Doula Project did start our medication abortion support hotline for people to reach out during the process of their medication abortion if they needed support. A medication abortion can take many hours. And for many people, those hours might be in the middle of the night, which is why we run it 24/7. People will need any informational support. I think one of the biggest things that people want to know during a process when something happening is, is this normal? Because it can be sometimes startling. There's more blood than people expect sometimes when the uterus is releasing all at once and - you know, and there's a pregnancy. So there's more there than there would be for, say, a typical period. Or they may want help with figuring out the nausea. They may be having that 3 a.m. dark moment of the soul where they just need somebody to talk to because they're feeling alone.
Someone who's having a medication abortion at home may have lots of support there, or they may be sitting in a room by themselves not telling anyone that's going on and maybe even trying to keep it secret from a family member or a roommate who might be in the home. So it's really anything that someone might need to just make sure that they are feeling OK and that they feel supported because that can be a lonely or scary experience.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Vicki Bloom. She's a full-spectrum doula who is in the leadership circle of The Doula Project in New York City. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Vicki Bloom, a full-spectrum doula working with people no matter how the pregnancy proceeds, whether it results in birth, miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. She's in the leadership circle of The Doula Project in New York City.
One of your missions is to work with marginalized communities, including people who are lesbians, trans men, people who identify as nonbinary. And I'm wondering, when people who are having birth - particularly the people who identify as trans men or nonbinary - when they're giving birth and they're using female reproductive organs, does it change their relationship to their body?
BLOOM: In the context of abortion, a trans man or a nonbinary person who identifies more on the masculine side of the binary may find it extraordinarily dysphoric to find themselves pregnant. And that may be something that comes up that we discuss as a doula when we're in that situation where they're having an abortion, that they may feel - you know, feel tough about having gynecological care in general, and that a doula who is experienced with that community is able to help them navigate that. In terms of a nonbinary person or a trans man who has chosen to become pregnant or who has found themself pregnant and has chosen to give birth, it really varies very widely in terms of how people are engaging with their body. I think that people overall, if they are choosing to go through a pregnancy, are really reconciling themselves to the fact that their body is doing something that is not typical for their gender identity.
The part that can be very hard is the context of the birth industry or the people around birth where, you know, if you go to a parenting class, you don't expect to have pregnant masculine people in the parenting class necessarily. And not all instructors are good on that. In the context of a hospital, I find myself with some of my clients doing what is often called code switching, which is to use different language depending on who's in the room. So I may use he/him pronouns or they/them pronouns for my client because that's what they prefer in their life, but they've chosen not to engage that topic with every person in the hospital. So once a doctor walks in the room, we may be using she/her pronouns for that person just because they didn't want to deal.
GROSS: When you're talking about pregnancy, you use the word pregnant people as opposed to pregnant women. And I presume that because you work with so many nonbinary pregnant people who don't identify necessarily as women or trans men who certainly don't identify as women. Can you talk about that language change a little bit and how you feel about it?
BLOOM: I feel very good about it. I think that this is something which has started to propagate in at least more progressive parts of the birth community and the reproductive justice community because we want to make sure that everybody who this affects, which is really everybody who has a uterus, is included. We don't want to be exclusive where we feel like certain people for whom these things are important feel left out. And so I think it's a good move in language to be inclusive in general. My goal as a doula, as I said, is to make anybody who's going through reproductive health experiences feel comfortable and feel safe and feel like they're seen for who they are, and some of those people don't identify as women.
GROSS: What are some of the emotional highs and lows you've experienced as a doula in helping women through childbirth or abortion?
BLOOM: Well, I'd say in terms of lows, some of those experiences where I'm working with somebody, especially in the abortion context, where, like I said, I might only be with them for under an hour, and they've got a lot of complicated, rough things in their life that they're expressing to me in the moment. And, you know, I might work with someone who might be having relationship trouble, might be having some conflict with a partner over abortion, might be pregnant as the effect of a rape or an assault, might just really be having financial trouble. And I know that I can help them in the moment with this one thing, but I can't fix their life. Even if they've unburdened their whole life to me, I'm in a role for a moment. And there can be a lot of sadness there to have to let go, especially in a clinic context. You might be working with eight clients in a day, and I need to be able to refresh, take a few deep breaths, ground and then be there for the next person.
Some of my colleagues in the Doula Project used to always say that it was good in New York City that nobody cared if you cried on the subway because they would come out of clinic and there would just be so much emotion and so much going on that they would cry. On the other hand, I have had hilarious conversations with people during their abortions. I once spoke to somebody who worked in a fast-food restaurant in Times Square in the overnight shift, and she spent her whole abortion telling me about the crazy people who walk into this fast-food restaurant at 2 a.m. in Times Square. And she and I and the doctor were just laughing and laughing through the whole thing. And then the doctor's like, you're done. And she said, oh, OK, and, you know, we moved on. And there was a lot of joy there.
You know, we also - I've also worked with people who were experiencing a loss. I've worked with - I worked with a client once whose partner had died a few days before she gave birth. And so she was giving birth, and there was some joy in having the baby and some joy in seeing him in the baby, but he was gone. Anything can happen during these experiences. It's a microcosm of everything in life, the highest highs, the lowest lows. And as a doula, you have to be there for whatever comes up because you don't know what's going to come up for somebody. And your goal is just to be in presence with people, however things come together.
GROSS: Well, Vicki Bloom, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
BLOOM: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to talk to you today.
GROSS: Vicki Bloom is a doula and is in the leadership circle of the Doula Project in New York. After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the eight-episode drama "Fatal Attraction," a reworking of the 1987 film. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, the Paramount+ streaming service presents the first three episodes of its new eight-episode drama "Fatal Attraction." It's a reworking and expansion of the 1987 Adrian Lyne film, an erotic thriller that's still talked about and argued about all these decades later. In the original film, Michael Douglas played a married man who had a heated sexual encounter with a mentally unstable woman played by Glenn Close, only to have her begin harassing him and his family, ultimately ending with her death. This new version stars Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There are two obvious reasons to mount a new version of "Fatal Attraction" based on the novel by James Dearden. One is that the Adrian Lyne film became such a major hit that as intellectual property properties go, it's a title and a premise that's very familiar and easily marketable. The movie also has been the subject of such heated debate, a debate which has grown as the years have gone by, that it's ripe for a new, perhaps less sexist and misogynist interpretation. Whether this new version delivers a substantially different interpretation is something I won't reveal here because it's part of the suspense. But this new eight-part TV version from Paramount+ does just fine on the marketing, and the casting is a big part of that. Joshua Jackson, a sympathetic presence on screen ever since "Dawson's Creek," plays Dan Gallagher. Amanda Peet plays his wife, Beth. And Lizzy Caplan plays Alex Forrest, the woman who stalks Dan after he cuts off their brief affair. Caplan already has done spellbinding work playing complicated characters in the TV series "Masters Of Sex" and, more recently, "Fleishman Is In Trouble." And she does it again here, sometimes in spite of her material.
By expanding the narrative to eight hours, these TV adaptors, Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes, end up diluting their own focus. The story is now told in two primary timelines - in present day, when Dan is released from prison after serving 15 years for convicted murder, and back in 2008, when he first meets and begins interacting with Alex. And in addition to those twin timelines, there are various viewpoints. Primarily, we see things from Dan's perspective. But sometimes we see things from Alex's point of view, or Dan's wife, Beth, or even other characters, including Dan and Beth's now grown daughter, Ellen, played by Alyssa Jirrels. It's all a bit like "Rashomon," with scenes revisited to add a different context, but it's also a bit heavy-handed. In this retelling, there isn't a lot of subtext, just a lot of text, very obvious text, like a lot of quotations from psychologist Carl Jung and scenes that are laid out too clunkily to feel at all normal. Here's an early scene, for example, with Dan and Alex at the beach. It's a scene that's supposed to show their instant and easy emotional connection by swapping lists of things they dislike. But it all feels so forced. Their chemistry isn't at all obvious, much less convincing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FATAL ATTRACTION")
LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Alex) Also, I always forget that there's a lot of wind at the beach. Yeah, I'm not really a fan of that.
JOSHUA JACKSON: (As Dan) Of wind? Really?
CAPLAN: (As Alex) Really.
JACKSON: (As Dan) What are some other things you pretend to like?
CAPLAN: (As Alex) Live music. My neighbors.
JACKSON: (As Dan, laughter)
CAPLAN: (As Alex) Museums. In fact, I might have to go a few steps further and just say art.
JACKSON: (As Dan) Hats on anyone - just so stupid. Why?
CAPLAN: (As Alex, laughter)
JACKSON: (As Dan) Traveling.
CAPLAN: (As Alex) Oh, the worst.
JACKSON: (As Dan) Anything that I need to develop a taste for, and the holidays.
CAPLAN: (As Alex) Feedback, any kind of feedback.
BIANCULLI: Well, my feedback is that the makers of this new "Fatal Attraction" could have done without including such tired, obvious scenes, and without bringing psychology to the forefront, and adding subplots about whether Dan actually did the crime for which he was imprisoned, or how and if his daughter will accept him back in her life. The only subplot that works effectively, really, features Toby Huss, who plays Dan's friend, Mike, and a persistent supporter and investigator on Dan's behalf. His performance and Caplan's will carry you through "Fatal Attraction" when otherwise you might be tempted to drift away. But stay for Caplan as Alex, who, once she becomes a woman scorned, gets to dive into her role with a fury - literally, as when she places a phone call to Dan from a bar after he's a no-show again.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FATAL ATTRACTION")
CAPLAN: (As Alex) Hi. It's me again. They have this new special, this robiola cheese with roasted tomatoes. You know, for me to order not meatballs, it must be pretty good. But I don't know how much longer it'll be on the menu. So this is your heads up, because I haven't seen you here in a while. It's starting to make me feel like maybe I misunderstood something, except I really don't think that I did. I think you might have, though. And so I want to help. I want to help you be the man that I know that you are for your sake and for everybody else's. But in order to do that, I can't let you pretend like I don't exist, because I do exist. And I'm not going to be ignored, Dan.
BIANCULLI: That call lets you know what to expect from the rest of this new "Fatal Attraction." That was enough to keep me watching even through all the clunky detours. But whether or not that entices you to tune in and stay with Paramount+'s "Fatal Attraction," well, that's your call.
GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interview with Judy Blume, or with Virginia Sole-Smith, author of "Fat Talk: Parenting In The Age Of Diet Culture" - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you want to read about what's happening behind the scenes at FRESH AIR and get some good stories and suggestions from our producers, subscribe to our newsletter. You'll find a link at freshair.npr.org. I'm always happy to read it Saturday mornings when it arrives in my email.
(SOUNDBITE OF ASTOR PIAZZOLLA SONG, "TANGUEDIA III")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ASTOR PIAZZOLLA SONG, "TANGUEDIA III")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.