Annie Potts carries the message of 'Any Day Now'

Lifetime drama examines racism

— Mary Elizabeth Sims stands with her back against the refrigerator. Her arms are folded, her gaze a mixture of sadness and determination.

Husband Colliar has just come home with a bottle of champagne to celebrate a courtroom victory over a black man he sued for denying Colliar a construction contract because he's white. Mary Elizabeth tells Colliar that if he joins a class action suit with "the other good ol' boys," he shouldn't expect to find her standing by him in the courtroom.

It's the first scene of the morning for Annie Potts , who plays Mary Elizabeth on Lifetime Television's "Any Day Now." After a summer hiatus, Potts and co-stars Lorraine Toussaint and Chris Mulkey are back on the sound stage for more episodes of the acclaimed dramatic series that explores the lifelong friendship of two women in a small Southern town.

Mary Elizabeth, affectionately referred to as "M.E.," is a white woman whose teen-age pregnancy and marriage have kept her bound to her hometown. She is a loving wife and mother who can't ignore how narrow her world is.

Rene Jackson (Toussaint) is a black woman who had fled Birmingham to work as a big-city corporate attorney, turning away from her father's tradition of civil rights activism. Success, however, has come at a price.

A death brings Rene back home, where she tries to create a new life amid bitter memories that include her estrangement from her childhood friend. Young tomboy Mary Elizabeth and cautious Rene once were inseparable; the grown-up pair have to find a way to confront the rift between them and the choices they've made.

Southern woman to the core

On this day, Potts tackles a scene that's been extensively rewritten. The lines are different from those learned the night before. She admits she prefers more preparation time, but it's clear she can handle difficult situations.

Sure, she miscues a couple of times, or feels she can do better on the next take, but watching her work is to witness an actress certain of her craft and comfortable in her role.

"I think I'm very much Everywoman," says Potts, who had a recent, brief stint on the New York stage in "The Vagina Monologues."

"I think I'm very much every white woman and I think Lorraine is the black Everywoman." The series, she says, is based "on the emotional life of ideas and issues."

The one-hour series had its premiere in August 1998. Last year it was Lifetime's highest-rated drama in households and with women in key demographics. It began its third season July 23, still on Sunday nights, but now airing two hours earlier, at 7 p.m.

The actress is dressed in a damask linen dress and a teal crochet cardigan which accentuates the red Orphan Annie curls that frame her face. She's really a natural dark brunette and only chose to dye her hair auburn at the time of "Designing Women" because it was easier to light and it looked better on film.

"I still don't think of myself as a redhead," she says. "Walking down the street I see myself in the glass and I don't even recognize myself."

The 47-year-old actress is married to James Hayman, a director, currently working on the CBS series "Judging Amy." She's the mother of three sons: Clay, 19, James (who calls himself Doc), 8, and Harry, 4. The star of the sitcoms "Designing Women" and "Love and War" says she swore to stay home after those to tend to her offspring, but simply couldn't resist playing "M.E."

"We were determined to get her. ... We basically just had to figure out a way she could maintain her motherhood and take on the challenge of doing the show," says Gary Randall, the show's co-executive producer.

"Annie is a Southern woman to her very core. One of the primary essences of the character is a sarcastic sense of humor. She is to the truest sense of the word a feminist, without the militant aspects that that term normally connotes."

Expecting positive change

Potts was exposed to racism as a child growing up in Franklin, Ky. She tells a story about seeing the black woman who worked for her family denied service in a restaurant. The memory still brings tears to her eyes and sorrow to her voice. But essentially, she calls herself an optimist who believes positive change in attitudes regarding color will continue, though that probably won't happen as swiftly as she would wish.

Does she ever feel the content of the show is hampered by the caution of political correctness?

"I don't think so. We are completely left alone," she says.

Overlooked perhaps? "I don't think we get the recognition that we ought to have," she says, voicing some criticism toward the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP has bestowed its Image awards to networks it threatened to boycott, Potts says, yet has not honored "the only show on television that deals weekly, deeply, with race." (Toussaint has been nominated a couple of times but not won.)

Potts awards her own praise to her show's creators, dubbing them "wonderful, bright, visionary people," fully sensitive to the issues they raise.

"I'm just the messenger," she says with a smile.

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