Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Black Artists and Activists Reflect on Porgy and Bess

Seattle Opera's production of Porgy and Bess runs from Aug. 11-25. 

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

It’s a source of pride. It’s a source of stereotypes. The Gershwins’ opera means so many different things to different people.

Dominica Myers will never forget her first Porgy and Bess.

It was 1995, and she was a 21-year-old theater major. Between being one of few Black students on her college campus in central Washington, and having been raised in primarily-white spaces, Myers was accustomed to not seeing herself reflected in the world around her. So when her mom saved up to purchase a single Porgy and Bess ticket for her daughter, it was far more than a fancy evening at the Seattle Opera House; it was a precious gift that Myers would never forget. A homecoming.

“My mom had told me that, because she was white, there were things in life I would experience that she would never be able to understand. And vice versa.” Myers said. “She could have afforded OK tickets for the two of us, but instead, she sacrificed and saved to buy me the best seat she could afford. She wanted her daughter to be able to see herself onstage.”

Porgy and Bess was not the only loving gift like this from mother to daughter. Myers received tickets to shows where her Black American heritage was celebrated onstage, from Sweet Honey in the Rock a cappella group, to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. These experiences helped crystallize Myers’ own identity as an artist of color.
Left: Sweet Honey in the Rock  is an award-winning a cappella performance group rooted in African American history and culture. Right: Alvin Ailey's Revelations uses African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues to explore "the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul" through dance. 

 Later, as a professional actor and playwright with Robey Theatre Company, Myers got her own experience performing in an all-Black ensemble, which she describes as an experience unlike any other: “For those of us who can trace our ancestry to slavery, it’s almost like there is a longing for home in your DNA. This is the power of our togetherness in an all-Black cast; we don’t have our history, but we have this moment together right now.”

Today, Gershwin's lush melodies still conjure Myers’ first Porgy and Bess, where the set of Catfish Row opened up like a magical book to reveal world-class singers of color. It was an experience that proved to her that Blackness and grand opera can go hand-in-hand.

 But now, 23 years after first seeing the opera, the feeling of home is not as simple. After all, this work about people of the African diaspora (the Gullah community of South Carolina) was created by storytellers of European ancestry.

“Having worked with Black writers, Black producers, and Black history, it’s opened my eyes more to question aspects of Porgy and Bess,” Myers says. “While appreciating the Gershwins' creation, people must understand that the African American musical tradition is rooted in our own history of oppression. So now, when I hear gospel music in a show like Porgy and Bess, I think, ‘Wait a minute! That’s stolen!’ As the Gershwins’ story about Black culture continues to be widely celebrated and produced, actual Black composers such as Scott Joplin and Shirley Graham Du Bois are still not having their works presented regularly.” 
Shirley Graham Du Bois (pictured with her husband W. E. B. Du Bois) was a Black playwright, musicologist, writer and activist. Despite, her husband's wide acclaim, her works have often been overlooked. 


COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP 

Myers is not the first, nor the last, in the Black community to have a complicated relationship with Porgy and Bess. It’s a work as celebrated as it is criticized; beloved for iconic melodies such as “Summertime,” and denounced for cultural appropriation and stereotypes. Sidney Poitier didn’t initially want to play Porgy in the 1959 film version because he found it offensive to African Americans. (Later, he told Oprah in an interview that it was the one role in his career that he regretted.)

Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in the film
  Porgy and Bess. The film was deemed
controversial and has never been released on
VHS or DVD. 
At the height of the Black Power movement, social critic Harold Cruse described Porgy and Bess as “the most contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western world.” It was not simply the opera’s minstrel show clichés or white paternalism that Cruse was commenting on, according to Kathy Peiss in the article titled, “The Most Contradictory Cultural Symbol Ever.” 

Rather, Peiss writes, “it was the way the opera worked to exclude African Americans as cultural producers and to deny their ability to represent their own collective identity … Gershwin’s work was a museum piece, representing a Jim Crow world in the process of being overthrown.” 

It’s important to acknowledge Porgy and Bess’s historic contributions to equity, too. When the show opened in the 1930s, George Gershwin’s decision to cast Black people was racial progress in a time where white actors still frequently performed in blackface. Before the Civil Rights Movement, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown refused to perform as the title characters in Porgy and Bess until the National Theatre in Washington D.C. removed its “whites only policy.” Black people, for one week at least, sat alongside white people at the National Theatre, until the touring production packed up and left, and the house re-segregated once again.

What may have been considered as empowering to Black Americans in popular art and entertainment in the past is different now, more than 80 years later.

In 2018, Beyoncé made history as the first Woman of Color to headline Coachella, Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the movie Black Panther provided a much-needed new narrative: the story of an African nation that was never colonized and is the most advanced civilization in the world.
Left: Beyoncé performing at Coachella last year. The performance was a landmark occasion, as she was the first Woman of Color to headline the main stage. She continues to break barriers: given control over the September issue of Vogue this fall, she hired the a Black photographer to shoot her cover--for the first time in the magazine's 126 year existence.  Center: In 2018, Kendrick Lamar's album DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize for music. He is not only the first rapper, but also the first artist outside of jazz or classical to win the award since it was opened to musicians in 1943. Right: Black Panther, depicting the land of Wakanda, where the Black society is far more technologically advanced than the rest of the word, provides an alternative narrative than typically depicted in pop culture. 

Considering American culture and society today, is Porgy and Bess a work that helps move Black representation in the arts forward? Or does this opera perpetuate problematic patterns and stereotypes?

Depending on the Black artist, activist, scholar, or audience member one might ask, the answer may be vastly different. One thing that remains constant, however, is that Porgy will never fit into a simple box. It’s possible to appreciate, even love, a work of art while understanding its limitations. And Porgy and Bess, with its powerful offering of Black representation onstage and its roots in a less-evolved America, represents a perfect example.


THEMES TO WRESTLE WITH 

ChrisTiana ObeySumner, an Afro-Latinx activist and Social Impact Consultant for Seattle Opera (who uses they/ their pronouns), was first introduced to Gerswhin’s opera hearing their grandmother sing “Summertime” growing up.
ChrisTiana attends Seattle Opera with
friend, John. Philip Newton photo

“‘Summertime’ is a hauntingly beautiful song, and the person who sings it holds the archetype of the strong Black woman,” ObeySumner said. “My grandmother did a good job conveying the spirit of the song.” For ObeySumner, watching Porgy, however, is a painful experience “because it’s seeing my community through the eyes of white people.”

 At the same time, Porgy offers a chance for reflection. It’s an experience that hopefully, will make the viewer think more about race and intersectionality in the United States. It’s a piece bearing many truths that still have meaning today.

“For example, the way the Black community interacts with the police,” ObeySumner says. “The violent relationship with Bess and Crown in the context of #MeToo. The way people in the Black community can be ostracized or looked down upon, or even the way people with disabilities are sometimes treated, like Porgy.”

The music is breathtaking. The cast is top-notch. But this is not an opera that one should view in order to escape, ObeySumner said. It’s an opera for those in the audience to “embrace their own discomfort.” 


CERTAIN PLACE AND TIME 

Donald Byrd has never created dances for Porgy and Bess. However, the Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater (who was nominated for a Tony for The Color Purple and won a Bessie for The Minstrel Show) says he probably would.
Byrd choreographed the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, another production about the experiences of a Black community, however this story is written by an African American woman, rather than a white man. 

“There are certain things I recognize about the piece that are problematic, but that doesn't mean it’s wrong to put onstage today, it just means there are certain challenges,” Byrd says. “It’s a piece from a white perspective on a Black community. I would see my job as an opportunity to add authenticity of a certain time and place.”

Additionally, at the center of the the opera are relationships that Byrd describes as true and heartfelt, the results of Black people being marginalized and trying to find ways to survive. He describes Porgy as an earnest attempt by white storytellers to paint a sympathetic picture of the Black community. And even though he doesn't find Porgy to be entirely politically correct, he says that shouldn't be the goal of art.

“I’m the type of person who likes to sit in the theater and have a whole internal monologue with myself: What’s working? What’s pushing my buttons?” he says. “I don’t mind being in a place where the problematic nature of a work is staring me in the face—I would welcome that because it reminds me that I am alive. I am emotionally, physically, and intellectually alive.” 


THE IMPORTANCE OF REPRESENTATION

Despite who created it, many members of the Black community have taken ownership of Porgy and Bess and made it their own, including American tenor Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life). Smith continues to perform his signature role of Sportin’ Life all over the world (in 15 different productions, more than 500 individual performances, and 13 countries, to date) because, in interactions with both cast and audience, he’s observed the transformative power of Gershwin’s opera firsthand. 

Smith, who looks forward to directing Porgy and Bess in the future, knows that this piece is not the be-all and end-all of Black representation in opera. But right now, it continues to provide opportunities to many Black artists like himself, artists who are inspiring a new generation in this art form.

Smith during rehearsal with conductor John DeMain. 

“When I do inspirational talks in schools, I arrive with my locks down,” Smith says. “I arrive with my jeans on, looking very urban, I don’t tell the kids what I do. And then suddenly, I break out into song, and you should see their faces! They don’t know how to interpret it! They’re laughing. They’re applauding. They’re seeing someone from their own community singing opera!”

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