by Tom Grubisich
For the first time in its 81 years of existence, “Porgy and Bess” has been produced without a heavy load of wrongly packed racial baggage. It’s happened in Charleston, where the folk opera was artistically birthed but not presented for decades because Jim Crow laws prohibited shows with integrated audiences.
Spoleto Festival USA’s production at the Gaillard Center is the triumph that the original 1935 "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway , for all its theatrical and racial daring, wasn’t. There are many principals who are responsible for this signal success, but praise must begin with Visual Designer Jonathan Green, the Charleston painter and Gullah community advocate.
It was Green’s idea to imagine the inhabitants of Catfish Row as having come to Charleston the same way that the English, Scots, French, Germans and people from so many other countries did – looking for a better place to live. But the Gullah culture that Green has brought to such rich and variegated life is not to be confused with the same culture that native Charlestonian DuBose Heyward brought to the original folk opera, via his 1925 novel “Porgy” and its 1927 stage adaptation which he wrote with his wife, Dorothy.
A bit of background on DuBose Heyward helps to explain the significance of Green’s achievement. As a young man in Charleston and novice writer of poetry, fiction and essays, Heyward immersed himself in the Gullah culture to which most blacks in the area belonged. Gullah originated in West Africa but was shaped by subsequent experiences that blacks from that region had when they were enslaved and sent to work in plantations in the Caribbean and the coastal sea islands and lowcountry.
Heyward brought his “Porgy and Bess” collaborator, George Gershwin, to Folly Island for a crash course on Gullah that included visits to church prayer meetings where the composer could experience the culture close up.
Gullah religion was a hybrid of paganism and Christianity. Its story telling was expressed in song that scaled from mellifluous near-whispers to exuberant shouts, and in dance that animated the entire body. Bold, bright colors are another Gullah emblem. The culture, long threatened during the Jim Crow era of segregation, has gained a new life in recent years in large part because many blacks want to connect more closely with their ancestors and their lives and times going back to slavery.
Heyward was an heir to a family in the local white aristocracy whose antecedents included a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His consuming interest in the Gullah culture and preserving it gave him a degree of racial progressivism that other members of Charleston’s patrician and racially separate culture shunned. But ultimately Heyward saw blacks as racial “primitives” – a genetic subset that could be pinned to the wall in a white-ordered typology that veered into fantasy, however sympathetically it might expressed.
One of the most picturesque scenes in “Porgy and Bess” is the Gullah picnic on Kittiwah Island (inspired most likely by the real Kiawah Island). In his libretto, Heyward says the picnic’s paraders “crashed through the slow rhythm of the city’s life like a wild, barbaric chord.”
In Green’s design, the Gullah characters express themselves during the parade and in other scenes of happiness and tragedy without inhibition. But they are not “primitive” or “wild” or “barbaric” as they are in Heyward’s white-sourced racial portrayals. There’s not the minstrelsy waving of hands and rolling of eyes that white artists invariably worked into their posters and other art for and about "Porgy and Bess." Green was raised in the Gullah culture, so he knows whereof he paints and conceptualizes on his multi-dimensional operatic canvas.
In his review of “Porgy and Bess” in the Charleston City Paper last week, Editor Chris Haire captured Green’s achievement:
“Green…chose as his mood board the alt-reality idea that the men and women of Catfish Row were descendants of Africans who came to Charleston as willingly as the blue-bloods who inhabit South of Broad. It's Green's vision — as well as set designer Carolyn Mraz and costume designer Annie Simon's expert execution — that are the stars of this production. These contributions alone elevate Spoleto's Porgy and Bess to a level that few other shows this season will likely attain. They breathe new life into the Gershwin-Heyward opera and make it decidedly relevant to today's post-Mother Emanuel world.”
The sensibility that Green has brought to Spoleto’s “Porgy and Bess” is enormous, but, as Haire points out, other members of the production made major contributions. To Haire’s list should be added David Herskovits, who, as the director of Spoleto’s 1999 production of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s “Mamba’s Daughters,” knows DuBose Heyward’s strengths and limitations in interpreting black life.
What is wrong with the original “Porgy and Bess” was scaldingly enumerated by black critic Harold Cruse in his “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” in 1967:
["Porgy and Bess"] must be criticized from the Negro point of view as the most perfect symbol of the Negro creative artist’s cultural denial, degradation, exploitation and acceptance of white paternity….Negroes had no part in writing, directing, producing or staging this folk-opera about Negroes….[It] should be forever banned by all Negro performers in the United States….If white producers want to stage this folk-opera it should be performed by white performers made up in black face, because it is distorted imitation all the way through.”
While Spoleto’s “Porgy and Bess” is not the only version in which blacks were centrally involved in the writing, directing, producing or staging, it’s the first one that redresses the basic problem of a presumptuous white interpretation of black life – in particular the Gullah culture – and without creating as whole new set of problems.
A prominent example of reimagined stagings that were less successful is Broadway’s 2011 “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess," which was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, who is black. For example, Parks’ reworked “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” which is sung by Porgy, so it wouldn’t be interpreted as what she called a “happy-darkie-with-the-empty-pockets song." But Gershwin, who wrote the song's music to lyrics by Heyward and George's brother, Ira, reportedly was comfortable that the number would be heard as a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek commentary by blacks on how their lives were economically marginalized (by whites).
Heyward’s libretto should be honored for what it got right. His Porgy and Bess are not, for the most part, racial stereotypes. At the end of the opera, when Porgy learns that Bess has left Catfish Row and gone with her drug dealer Sportin' Life to New York City, he reacts as a lovesick human. Holding up his arms as he is helped onto his goat cart, he says, looking northward:
“I’m on my way.
Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.”
The endings in the novel “Porgy” and its stage adaptation were problematic about what Porgy would do regarding Bess. Rouben Mamoulian, who directed “Porgy and Bess” – as well as the earlier stage work – urged Heyward to use the bold new words that the librettist did add, and which make the folk opera’s co-lead a timeless hero on whichever world stage he sings his promise from a tortured heart. The crucial revision is recounted in Joseph Horowitz's Mamoulian biography, "On My Way."
Heyward and his production partner Gershwin made “Porgy and Bess” a vehicle to break up the segregation of blacks both as actors and audiences. The folk opera has numerous parts that widened opportunities for black actors, who, until then, had been segregated into minstrel-type shows or given stereotyped roles in other shows. It’s true that some of the new roles were white-distorted interpretations of Gullah characters, but, over the years, they opened many doors to the employment of black actors not only in New York but theatrical centers elsewhere in the U.S.
Heyward and Gershwin refused to permit “Porgy and Bess” to be produced in any segregated venue, which is why it wasn’t presented professionally in Charleston until 1970.
Spoleto’s “Porgy and Bess” is important not because it is a “black” production, which it isn't. It is important because, for the first time, this work, which has been called America’s greatest opera, presents black life beyond the sometimes fevered racial views of white artists who, otherwise, stuck their neck out for black equality. This racial truth telling has been more than eight decades in the making. As the Gullah fishermen in “Porgy and Bess” say, “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There.”