Monday, June 13, 2016

ARTS - The New "Porgy and Bess"

"New rendition of classic opera ‘Porgy and Bess' offers a ‘greater truth'" PBS NewsHour 6/9/2016


SUMMARY:  Since its first performance in 1935, “Porgy and Bess” has earned acclaim as one of American history's best pieces of musical theater.  But over time, many have come to view the opera's black characters as stereotypes.  Now, a new production in Charleston aims to rectify the issue by emphasizing the characters' -- and the city's -- African roots.  Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  “Summertime,” from the 1934 American opera classic “Porgy and Bess.”  It's a story set in Charleston and now being performed here as the centerpiece of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Spoleto Festival USA.

The music was familiar, but as the opera progressed, it had a less familiar look, just as visual director Jonathan Green wanted.

JONATHAN GREEN, Artist:  You have to know what the stereotypes are to move away from the stereotypes.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And what did you see in the stereotypes?

JONATHAN GREEN:  I saw in the stereotypes a complete disrespect of a continent of Africa, not being a part of the culture of a people.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Green, one of Charleston's most prominent artists, is himself from the Gullah community, descendants of West African slaves who lived in this area, the very setting of “Porgy and Bess,” for which he's imagined a kind of alternative history.

JONATHAN GREEN:  What if West Africans came as immigrants?  What would we be looking at?  What would we see?  And what are we missing because we haven't supported that?

JEFFREY BROWN:  The bright colors, patterns, and vivid designs, Green believes, fill in a missing piece and offer a greater truth about both the opera and the city.

Set in the 1920s, “Porgy and Bess” is the story of the disabled beggar Porgy, sung by Lester Lynch, the beautiful prostitute Bess, Alyson Cambridge, and their life in Catfish Row, a Charleston tenement.  It's based on the 1925 novel “Porgy” by DuBose Heyward, who lived near the real-life tenement, then called Cabbage Row.

HARLAN GREENE, Historian:  This very picturesque place was once a slum.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Local historian Harlan Greene has studied the period and the people.  He even found this photo of the real-life man, Samuel Smalls, on whom Porgy is based.

I asked him about the success of Heyward's original novel.

HARLAN GREENE:  What he did that was truly earth-shattering is that he showed a love story between a black man and a black woman, and this — a passionate love affair.  And it wasn't Uncle Remus.  It wasn't Aunt Jemima.  He took real people, and it wasn't a race novel.  It wasn't a stereotype.

He shattered all sorts of conventions at the time.

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