Annette McKenzie Anderson portrayed Bess, along with Kent Byas as Crown, in Charleston's 1970 production of Porgy and Bess. | Photo by Charles McKenzie

It took two generations and the racial awakening of the civil rights movement for Porgy and Bess to come back home to where it all started.  
The wildly successful international opera opened on Broadway in 1935 to world acclaim, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Porgy and Bess was first performed in Charleston. 

And it wasn’t until an updated production in 2016 during Spoleto Festival USA that Charleston saw the opera again, rekindling the power of the work here and abroad, leading to important conversations about Porgy and Bess and its complicated relationship with its home turf. 

Reuben Wright as Porgy during a dress rehearsal. | Photo by Charles McKenzie

Porgy’s overdue homecoming is a story about how institutional racism has for too long deprived Charlestonians of this pivotal work in American cultural history. 

The opera was adapted by George and Ira Gershwin from Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, itself an adaptation of Charlestonian DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name. 

The work has become a lightning rod for controversy; it has to reckon with being an account of Black life as written by non-Black people in a time of Southern segregation. 

Porgy and Bess is based on a fictionalized 1920s Charleston. Porgy, a disabled Black street beggar, was based on the real life Charlestonian named Samuel Smalls. The opera deals with his attempts to rescue his love, Bess, from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. 

Many Charlestonians are familiar with the world-renowned work, or at least its most popular George Gershwin aria, “Summertime,” now a  much-recorded jazz standard. 

The opera opens with a character named Clara, singing a lullaby to her child: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” 

The work is centered on the poverty-stricken residents struggling to survive in the tenement called “Catfish Row,” based on the real Charleston tenement nicknamed “Cabbage Row” at 89-91 Church Street. Then, like now, the hot Charleston summertime is not easy livin’, especially for these characters. 

“Summertime” is a song about tension. The story of Porgy and Bess’s complicated relationship with Charleston is too. 

Act I

The first-ever Charleston production (1970) 

Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway in 1935 and was shown all over the world before Charleston finally put on a production at the Gaillard Center, (then called the Charleston Municipal Auditorium) in 1970, with a local cast. 

“It was a healing process for Charleston, to finally see Porgy and Bess here,” said Charleston native, historian and archivist, Harlan Greene, the author of Porgy & Bess: A Charleston Story.

Greene explained that there had been multiple attempts in Charleston to show first the play Porgy, and later the opera, which were thwarted due to the issue of integrating audiences. According to Greene, screenings of the 1959 motion picture adaptation of the opera starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge were banned in South Carolina.

1969 was an especially tense year in Charleston, and in South Carolina as a whole: It was the year of the hospital workers’ strike and sanitation workers’ strike. Upstate, in Darlington County in early 1970 was the Lamar bus riots. 

60 minutes, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and more press were in Charleston to cover the protests, but also ended up covering the 1970 Porgy and Bess production, according to Lauren Waring Douglas, a director, producer and Charleston native who’s creating a documentary on the 1970 production, called When Porgy Came Home.

“The cast received Broadway-caliber reviews, and they were nationally accredited with a moment of racial healing,” Douglas said. “I sat there and I was floored, because I thought, wait a second, I remember sitting on some of these peoples’ knees as a child. And if I didn’t know about this, then I know that greater Charleston didn’t know as much as they should about it.”

“I thought to myself, how much more empowered would I be — or anybody born after 1970 — how much more empowered would we be if we knew there was a time when our community came together before in the face of tension and tragedy?

“So, I started making phone calls and reintroducing myself to people I had known my whole life,” Douglas said.

Act II

Inspired by Spoleto (2016)

Douglas originally began the project with a goal to make a short film about the legendary visual artist Jonathan Green’s involvement with the second-ever Charleston production of Porgy and Bess, in 2016 for Spoleto Festival USA.

Producer Lauren Waring Douglas is creating a documentary about the 1970 production of Porgy and Bess. | Courtesy Lauren Waring Douglas

Douglas said Green told her his motivation in working on the production’s sets and costuming was to honor, and in some ways, correct, the opera’s representation of Gullah-Geechee culture.

“Jonathan told me he would do it because, one, we are going to honor our architecture; we are going to honor Phillip Simmons and his ironwork. And two, we are going to honor the wardrobe. In past productions, people were dressed in slavery scraps. Jonathan Green was the one who was like, hold on, we were the seamstresses. We would make these ball gowns and we wouldn’t save some fabric for ourselves? And he was right,” Douglas said. 

“We have really unique architecture, really unique food, and Porgy and Bess reminds us of that fact,” said Douglas. “We have a really unique culture which inspired great work.”

Inspired by the Spoleto production and especially Green’s involvement with it, Douglas began researching to make a film. She started out by reading the 1925 novel Porgy, which made her actually consider dropping the project. She’d recently wrapped up work on the PBS special, America After Charleston, which explored race relations in the aftermath of the June 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. 

Jonathan Green is an internationally acclaimed visual artist. | Courtesy Jonathan Green

Douglas said she decided that the PBS project had been “depressing enough,” and that she thought she ought to “preserve her sanity by not touching Porgy and Bess, which deals with such heavy topics as medical experimentation on Black bodies, domestic abuse, drug problems, prostitution, gentrification and more.”

She was planning to abandon the project until a conversation with her father, Charleston City Councilman Keith Waring, changed her perspective and ultimately her direction with the documentary. 

“My dad didn’t want me to let the project go,” said Douglas. “I thought, ‘Why does my dad care about Porgy and Bess?’ ”

Her father sat her down and told her about seeing the 1970 production back when he was a teenager. He explained to his daughter he remembered feeling a “real communal sense of pride” connected to that first-ever Charleston production, which was performed by a local cast. 

It was produced by the Charleston Symphony Association, with Ella Gerber from New York City as director. James Edwards, the leader of the local Choraliers Music Club, served as choral director. They sold out 16 shows with tickets at $3, $4 and $5, and ended up netting a whopping $35,000, Douglas said. “Black people were not supposed to be the breakout sensation of the Charleston tricentennial celebration.”

After speaking with her father, Douglas decided she needed to instead focus the documentary on the 1970 production.

“I learned about the how and the why of the 1970 production, the fact that it had played all over the world and all over the country, how it was sponsored by the state department to prove that race relations were good in America, and yet, it never played in Charleston until this production,” Douglas said.

“I think Charleston should know that story.”


Douglas’ documentary (release date TBD)

Douglas has since interviewed countless cast members from the 1970 production, who tell her that the artistic success of the production was due to their real lived experiences with the subject matter.

“They tell me, Lauren, we know the part, we lived the part.”

Douglas said that in the 1970 production, “the Charleston crowd went wild” during the marketplace scene where a character called the Strawberry Woman sings about her goods. 

Green’s wardrobe designs for Spoleto’s Porgy and Bess deviated from previous renditions and used bright, bold fabrics and designs. | Courtesy Jonathan Green; Spoleto Festival USA

“There were Black folk in Charleston, walking around the streets, singing about their goods they’re selling — there’s archival footage of that, that was real,” Douglas said. 

“People built their legacies off of that. And so the local cast, they knew how to bring to life the honor in that. My interviewees, that’s their legacy. They have those relatives, and they went to college because of that work. So to them, I think it was about giving honor to those supporting characters, and to our Gullah language and history. For them, it was about honoring the unseen experience of these folks.”

Douglas said that though there is not yet a set release date, she hopes to complete her documentary by 2024. Her hope is that viewers of When Porgy Came Home walk away looking at Charleston differently, at Porgy and Bess differently, and at Gullah-Geechee culture in a more honorable way. 

“My hope is that people aren’t as afraid to talk about race. That’s my hope.”

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