Selected Shorts: Ken Burns Presents Willa Cather’s America

Symphony Space. Courtesy of Symphony Space
Symphony Space. Courtesy of Symphony Space

Symphony Space hosted Selected Shorts: Ken Burns Presents Willa Cather’s America, bringing dynamic and eloquent prose to life on stage and live-streamed on September 27th.

Patricia Clarkson, David Strathairn, Sonia Manzano, and Sarah Mezzanotte entertained the audience with their reading. In addition, there was a musical performance by mezzo-soprano Linda Collazo.

Willa Cather, born in 1873, was a 20th-century writer of short stories, and poetry and a noted teacher. Her family moved to Nebraska when she was nine, and the frontier lifestyle, weather, and the grandness of the prairie influenced her life and writing. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her World War I-based novel, One of Ours.


The Way of the World, presented by Sonia Manzano, best known for her role as “Maria” on Sesame Street. Dressed in a blue, yellow, and black two-piece outfit, she was animated as she told the short story published in 1898. The Way of the World is about a small town, Speckleville, where kids pretend to run the town. The piece spins a tale of sexism where only boys are allowed, and the idea of letting a girl into their game ruins the fun.

Cather was a feminist long before they coined the phrase, and this story is really an insight into male sexist prejudices that still exist today, making the theme relevant. Burns thanked Manzano for her beautiful reading.

David Strathairn presented A Wagner Matinee, and Burns remarked it had a “gentle acuity.” The prose is from Cather’s published first collection, The Troll Garden. Strathairn, dressed in a comfy-looking plaid flannel shirt, brought insight to a story that presents the sadness of living a life of idleness and dreaming of another. It’s somewhat just a reflection of Cather’s life, from time spent in Nebraska and the excitement of Georgiana having lived in New York City.

At the end of the story, the main character, Georgiana, having witnessed an intensely moving symphony concert, remarks, “I don’t want to go.” It is a simple sentence about getting lost in a daydream world and not wanting to enter reality. The story reaffirms Cather’s stunning ability to present the happiness and pain of hidden longing.

Sarah Mezzanotte, a graduate of The Tisch School at NYU, gave a superb reading of The Song of the Lark, a short story published in 1915. The tale is about a young girl who leaves her small hometown for Chicago to fulfill her dream of becoming a singer. The underlying theme of some of Cather’s writing appears to be about dreams, both filled and unfilled. She reminds us that introspection is a good thing.

Linda Collazo, with her powerful mezzo-soprano voice, brought delight to the room as she performed Che faro senza Euridice, accompanied by Eric Sedgwick.

Patricia Clarkson, looking sleek in a black jacket, pants, and boots, gave an emotional reading of The Burglar’s Christmas, a story about a young man’s travails, as he goes from poor to rich. Cather mastered this transition in a few pages, bringing the emotions of helplessness and the magic of Christmas into this story published in 1896.

After the final reading, Burns remarked, “Let’s put Cather back on the Times Best Seller list. You will not be disappointed.” Not disappointed, the audience celebrated with a hearty round of applause for the brilliant performances of those who were onstage.


Symphony Space presents Selected Shorts: Ken Burns Presents Willa Cather’s America.

With Sonia Manzano, David Strathairn, Sarah Mezzanotte, Linda Collazo and Patricia Clarkson. Musical accompaniment by Eric Sedgwick. Press by Blake Zidell.

Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York 10025. Box office 212-864-5400 or boxoffice@symphonyspace.org.

Readers might also enjoy our reviews of My Moment – 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves, and Artwork at The Players: 50 Selected Essays. Women Running in the Mountains, and Gold by Rumi.

Selected Shorts: Ken Burns Presents Willa Cather’s America

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