Not to be missed, under any circumstances, is the Valentine’s Day televersion of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (February 14; 9:30 to 11 p.m.; HBO), which opens up the Off Broadway stage set, roams the streets, interviews a fresh assortment of smart women, and chats to the camera between sketches. Still, the sketches are why we’re here, including “Because He Liked to Look at It,” and “The Little Coochie Scorcher.” After the changes Ensler rings on the orgasmic moan, we no longer require Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally … Ensler is hilarious; you want to buy her I’M YOUR BOB button. She is also angry: Besides sex workers, she has talked to rape victims. Transgressive, to be sure. Transcendent, absolutely.
It’s a splendid week as well for Black History Month. In ascending order of amazement: There is Harry Lennix as Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., not to mention Vanessa Williams as jazz pianist Hazel Scott, in Keep the Faith, Baby (February 17; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime), directed by Doug McHenry from a script by Art Washington. Then Eriq Ebouaney as Patrice Lumumba, who lasted only eight months as the prime minister of a Congo newly liberated from Belgium before the CIA decided he should disappear permanently, in Lumumba (February 16; 10:05 p.m. to midnight; HBO), Raoul Peck’s English-dubbed French-language docudrama. And finally, Roger Guenveur Smith in his own one-man play about the original Black Panther, A Huey P. Newton Story (February 13; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13), brought from Off Broadway to the small screen by Spike Lee.
See Clayton Powell, in his early rent-strike days, cutting a deal with Mike Quill of the Transport Workers to support a bus strike; or, new to Congress, following a furious John Rankin all over the House of Representatives, sitting down next to him wherever he lands. See Lumumba, pencil-thin and Malcolm-like, selling beer and civil disobedience, a martyr not only to the Cold War but also to the diamonds of Katanga. (And go read Barbara Kingsolver’s Congo novel, The Poisonwood Bible.) And then consult with Huey, gangsta rapper before his time – part Lenny Bruce, another part Ali – all nicotine and jive: “Shambo,” he says of himself, a combination of Shaft and Rambo. He sought justice, he says, in a state penitentiary, and that’s what he found: “Just us.” Hard to believe that he was gunned down in 1989 by a drug dealer rather than a cop.