New rendition of classic opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ offers a ‘greater truth’

June 9, 2016 at 7:29 PM EDT
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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The annual Spoleto music festival in Charleston, South Carolina, will wrap up this weekend. One of its highlights, the staging of a hometown classic, had special meaning, as the city approaches a tragic anniversary.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: “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.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was George Gershwin who then created the musical masterpiece. But, ever since, many African-Americans and others have seen stereotypes in the characters and the way they have been portrayed.

And the opera came up against other harsh realities in its long segregated hometown.

HARLAN GREENE: “Porgy and Bess” and “Porgy” has always been sort of a lightning rod to give us reasons to discuss race in this country. They tried to do a version of it in the ’50s, the play version of it. There was going to be a local production. It had gone into rehearsal.

But it was going to be in a segregated hall. And at first, that was OK. But then, as people started thinking about it, specifically the local NAACP and the national NAACP, they thought, well, if African- Americans are good enough to be in the starring vehicle, shouldn’t they be good enough to integrate the hall?

And society had not caught up with the arts at that time period.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it didn’t happen.

HARLAN GREENE: So it didn’t happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: It wasn’t until 1970 that an integrated performance could take place in Charleston, in the old Gaillard Auditorium. Spoleto’s general director, Nigel Redden, wanted the new production to open the newly-renovated Gaillard Auditorium.

NIGEL REDDEN, General Director, Spoleto Festival USA: The 1970 production was a kind of a landmark in the community, and I want this to be another landmark, and a landmark about how we have evolved since 1970, how the city has evolved, how I hope that nation has evolved.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s grand terms for an opera at an arts festival.

NIGEL REDDEN: I absolutely believe that the arts can and do change the way we think about things.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing people are thinking about, the massacre of nine people at the nearby Emanuel AME Church, just days after the close of last year’s festival.

SHARON RISHER, Daughter of Shooting Victim: Her work ethic was just phenomenal.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was proud of the work she did here?

SHARON RISHER: Yes, of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sharon Risher’s mother, Ethel Lance, was one of those killed. She’d been a custodian at the theater before retiring in 2002. The Memorial Day performance of “Porgy and Bess” was dedicated to her.

SHARON RISHER: To come to a place where my mom spent 32 years of her life and to know that the performance took the time to memorialize her, it just did my heart good, and I felt like maybe now I have some spiritual closure with the auditorium.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right after the shooting, some victims’ family members forgave the alleged killer, Dylann Roof. Sharon Risher doesn’t go that far.

SHARON RISHER: There is still a lot of anger. There is still a lot of pain. And I know I will get to that point of forgiveness. But it just coming out there with me not working through is not something I have been able to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spoleto’s producers were determined that “Porgy and Bess,” which quickly sold out, would be a community affair. The performance that honored Ethel Lance was also simulcast to nearby Marion Square, where people watched for free.

Marian Greene Thompson was one of them.

MARIAN GREENE THOMPSON: As far as this production coming at this time, it’s needed. We need to know history. There are parts of it that we don’t like. But we need to know, so that that can help us move forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: And all over town, one could see so-called Porgy houses, homes with ties to Charleston’s African-American history, with African-inspired designs by Jonathan Green.

This has given you an interesting canvas, right? This is more than just the theater, more than the stage. You get the city.

JONATHAN GREEN: I get the city, but, more importantly, I get the people’s attention to want to know why that’s there, and to have the opportunity to read about these people, and to know that it has nothing to do with anything, other than giving you a little more dimension into the history of black people, as to why there would be an opera “Porgy and Bess.”

JEFFREY BROWN: A wounded city, with a rich and often troubled history, ready to celebrate anew one of the nation’s greatest works of homegrown art.

From the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”