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Director Rita Coburn talks about her Marian Anderson documentary and the role Philly plays in it

A dream first helped point filmmaker Rita Coburn to the story of Philadelphia's legendary contralto Marian Anderson.

Rita Coburn is directing a film biography of Philadelphia-born legend Marian Anderson for PBS' "American Masters."
Rita Coburn is directing a film biography of Philadelphia-born legend Marian Anderson for PBS' "American Masters."Read moreCHRISTOPHER HOWARD

Marian Anderson’s story has been calling to director Rita Coburn for more than five years. With maybe a small prod from the late Maya Angelou.

Coburn, whose 2016 documentary about Angelou, And Still I Rise, won a Peabody Award, was announced in May as the director of a new film for PBS’s American Masters, tentatively titled Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands. It isn’t expected to premiere until at least 2021. But Coburn’s interest in the legendary contralto from Philadelphia was piqued years before she came to the project.

In a January 2015 interview with the Chicago Tribune about her reading habits, the Chicago-based director said she next planned to read a biography of Anderson, whose life fascinated her. What the story didn’t say was what had prompted her interest at that particular moment.

“I’m a Christian. I pray all the time and I’m spiritually led about my projects. And it is a heady draft, to have done Maya Angelou, and you say to yourself: ‘What do I do next? I can’t just do anything,’” Coburn told me in an interview last month for The Inquirer’s Instagram Live at Lunch series.

“And I had a dream. Please don’t misquote me. I do not believe people come back from the dead — but all of this was on my mind when I went to sleep. … And in my dream, I saw Maya Angelou [who had died in May 2014] and she said, ‘Your next documentary will be on Marian Anderson.’ And I wasn’t thinking of Marian Anderson.

"So I said, ‘Marian Anderson?’ which I was wont to do with [Angelou], to question her, which would get me into trouble sometimes. And in the dream, she said: ‘Yes, she has my initials: M. A.’ That was so startling to me that I sat up in the bed. And because I sleep [with a] computer on the other side, I got on my computer, and I looked to see if there was a book or documentary [on Anderson]. I found that there was both and I ordered the book.”

» READ MORE: Marian Anderson, "The Lady from Philadelphia," to get "American Masters" treatment at last

Reading it later, “I began to write in the margins, how I would direct it. And I then veered off and I started working on another documentary, and this [project] didn’t come back to me until sometime later. But I was reading that book for no other reason than that I had that vision, that dream, and, and for me, it is perfect. I’m so in love with the story. I cannot tell you.”

An international star, Anderson was known as much for breaking racial barriers as for her extraordinary voice, and especially for her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the Black singer to perform at Constitution Hall.

In Philadelphia, Anderson, who died in 1993 at age 96, has lived on in the Marian Anderson Award, given annually to artists who have had a positive impact on society. Past winners include Angelou, Dionne Warwick, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Gere, Norman Lear, and, in 2019, Kool and the Gang.

Coburn already had reason to visit Philadelphia, where her son Lee Whack was until last year a spokesperson for the School District. Before the coronavirus pandemic, her research had taken her both to the University of Pennsylvania, which holds the vast majority of Anderson’s papers, and to the National Marian Anderson Museum, in Anderson’s former home at 762 Martin St. in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

Penn’s collection is “massive,” Coburn said, "and I love that it’s massive. ’Cause I’m your girl with the big project. You know, you’ve got 20 photographs, don’t call me. But the University of Pennsylvania has 4,000 [of Anderson’s] photographs and 6,000 letters.”

She considered the museum worth repeat visits because “what Jillian [Patricia Pirtle, the museum’s CEO] does is, from the wealth of the packrat-ness of Marian Anderson that she inherited this museum, she changes it … from top to bottom with different themes, very often bringing in pieces from storage. And so I just can’t wait to get back to her,” Coburn said.

It could be a while. The museum has struggled financially for years, and the pandemic-forced closing, combined with a plumbing emergency a few months ago that caused thousands of dollars in flood damage, hasn’t helped, Pirtle said in a recent interview. A GoFundMe campaign to raise $40,000 to cover repairs and the COVID-related loss in revenue has so far brought in more than $21,000.

» READ MORE: Jenice Armstrong: Why doesn't the Marian Anderson Awards also fund her struggling museum in South Philly?

Much of Penn’s Anderson collection is also off-limits right now because the building housing it is closed to the public, said David McKnight, director of Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The photographs were digitized about a decade ago and are available online, and this summer the university announced it had finished digitizing more than 2,500 other items, available online through the research portal Discovering Marian Anderson.

The items that are online include notebooks, diaries, daybooks, and scrapbooks that spotlight the “private side and public side of [Anderson’s] performances,” McKnight said, as well as noncommercial recordings. “The programs reveal a great deal about her musical interests, the diversity of the places she performed. ... By the 1940s she was literally on the world’s stage, she was an international star.”

Still, in terms of the entire collection, which was acquired with the help of Anderson’s late nephew, symphony conductor (and Wharton grad) James DePreist, the online portion represents only “a drop in the bucket, frankly,” McKnight said, and doesn’t, for instance, include those thousands of letters Coburn is interested in.

To Coburn, though, Philadelphia is more than a repository of Anderson artifacts. It’s a setting.

“It is our job to take you back to a woman who was born in 1897. And to understand what Philadelphia was at that time,” she said. “Philadelphia was a bustling town that was on the border. It wasn’t quite the South. And her family had come from the South. Her grandfather was a Black Jew. He went to a synagogue in Philadelphia that still stands. She was born near a Baptist church that they attended, Union Baptist [which in those days was at 12th and Bainbridge Streets]. It was integrated in the beginning … so some of her schooling was done next to white children.”

The picture won’t always be pretty, she warned.

“We need to paint Philadelphia for what it was, with its Liberty Bell and a lack of liberty. So we will spend time there and then we will travel with her. ... And her story takes her to Chicago. Her story takes her to the Deep South. Her story takes her to Europe at a time when [most] white people weren’t going to Europe. And when you were going on ocean liners, when you were writing letters because a phone call, if you could get it, was way too dear an amount of money to spend. So we’re going to sit in Philadelphia solidly where it is, we’re going to come back to it when she came back to it. And we’re going to follow her because the documentarian’s goal is to find her. She’s not here to tell me and so I have to find her.”

What’s more, as with any such documentary, “you start at a point of failure," she said. "Somebody has lived 90 years, and you’re going to tell their story in 90 minutes.”

For And Still I Rise, Coburn was able to interview Angelou. What would she ask Anderson if she were able to?

“I’d really want to know what it really felt like to iron your dress in the alley and then go sing and floor the people. What did it really feel like to come up to 1939, to get on the stage, but you couldn’t stay in a hotel and somebody had to have you stay in their house? What was your relationship with Albert Einstein like? [Einstein hosted Anderson at his home in Princeton a number of times, beginning in 1937, when she was denied a room in a hotel there while performing at the university]. How in love with your husband were you? Were you sad that you never had children and had to make that decision? There’d be a lot of things I’d really like to know.”

She’d also like to know “what it was like to have white people who woke up and said, ‘We will try to be fair to you regardless of the privilege we know that we live with.’ What was that like when Eleanor Roosevelt extended an olive branch ... and when you went to Europe and people said, ‘Let’s sit down and have borscht and allow you to breathe,’ and then you had to come back and see that Black men were being hung because they wanted to vote?"