Last Friday, the 40th season of Spoleto Festival USA opened with Porgy and Bess, and make no mistake the Gershwin-Heyward classic is a nearly four-hour marathon. But it’s far from an endurance test.
Porgy and Bess is a captivating affair from beginning to end thanks to the timeless songs, the soaring vocals of nearly all the principal players, and the beautiful set and costume designs that capture the heart and soul of the Holy City. This is arguably the first production of Porgy and Bess to feel as if it’s set in Charleston.
That no one tried to actually do this in the past is almost a travesty; instead they repeatedly transformed Catfish Row into a generic early 20th century ghetto populated by downtrodden men and women clothed in rags and despair. Director David Herskovits’ Porgy and Bess is the exact opposite of this. It’s a colorful celebration of the Gullah people and their African heritage and a testament to their faith and hope and love for their community.
This isn’t to say that these qualities are particularly unique to the characters in Porgy and Bess nor to Charleston’s African-American population, but rarely has there been a production of this opera that captures the black community as a vibrant, joyful, hard-working collection of men and women that are no different than their white counterparts elsewhere in the Holy City or the rest of the United States. That may sound patronizing, but it’s a sad fact that’s indicative of just how far we have failed to come in presenting the African-American community as they are and not as a collection of stereotypes. To make matters worse, this is a crime committed by both black and white artists.
Yes, there is the rare cinematic com-dram or rom-com featuring an all-black cast or the occasional black sitcom, although the latter often employs the same slapsticky tropes used during the black-face era. Rarely do you see African-American comedies that approach the black community with thoughtful dignity as we once did with Good Times, A Different World, or even What’s Happening. On the other hand, dramas are primarily focused on specific historical moments that give white audiences the I’m-right-there-with-you-brother feel-goods, even though these very same individuals may have sat on the sidelines, kowtowing to the status quo as these important and dire events unfolded.
All of which is to say, Spoleto’s Porgy and Bess feels like a revolutionary experience.
Of course, much of the credit for this goes to Porgy and Bess‘ visual designer and the Lowcountry’s own Jonathan Green, who 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 is the star of this production. These three alone elevate Spoleto’s Porgy and Bess to a level that few other shows this season will likely attain.
As the opera opens, we peer through a scrim mimicking the wrought-iron gates that litter the landscape of downtown Charleston and which the African-American blacksmith Philip Simmons was known for. And we watch as the denizens of Catfish Row dance, play craps, and otherwise celebrate what was surely a long and hard workweek.
This isn’t the only direct visual call to Charleston. The central structure of Catfish Row is very much a duplicate of its 89-91 Church St. inspiration, and a soft, pink Charleston single stands to its left. Behind the building, the Holy City’s much-celebrated steeples peep up as billowing clouds dot the baby-blue sky. It all feels very much like home.
The performances, of course, are all very good, and while I could go into detail here, it’s more important to point out this otherwise stellar show’s one flaw: many of the lyrics are unintelligible throughout the production. Some of this is surely owed to the style, but nevertheless watching Friday’s production was more of an exercise of feeling your way around what was going on and less of actually knowing what was happening. This is a huge, but not insurmountable drawback. While some audience members surely appreciated the voices as pure instruments, at nearly four hours, the lack of understanding is likely to be a source of much grumbling, and we heard grumbling. And it’s a shame because this outstanding production of Porgy and Bess deserves to be seen — and heard.
During Saturday’s performance by Bohemian Trio, their first of Spoleto, I tried to conduct a little experiment. I decided to let the music tell me a story, in this case a short film. And so I kicked back as Bohemian Trio — Yosvany Terry (sax and others), Orlando Alonso (piano), and Yves Dharamraj (cello) — guided me through a mini-suite of moods and melodies as pictures formed in my head. It went like this:
Our short opens to the sound of cascading water. It’s trickling and flowing, over rooftops, down steps, into a creek. Children are dancing in puddles by the creek. As the music changes, we see people rushing home from work. Some are in cars. Others are walking briskly on the sidewalk. The streets are filled but flowing. They are headed home. But long after the cars are gone, a lone man walks the alleyways. He’s homeless and he’s digging through the discarded items, trash, waste. While searching a dumpster, he finds a toy boat; it’s very much like one that he had as a child. In fact, the man wonders, is this my boat? He then decides that it is, and so he celebrates by dancing. His movements quickly become wild and erratic until he begins to resemble a dervish. He dances through the street and across puddles until he slips and drops the boat. It lands in a gutter and is immediately carried away by the current. He pursues the boat as it races further down the street, but he is unable to catch it. The boat has entered a storm drain. The boat’s journey continues until his comes out of a pipe into a small creek in a wooded area. Three children are playing beside it. They are dancing in puddles. One picks up the boat. End scene.
Now, I don’t know if any of that is useful to you in describing Bohemian Trio’s music, but that’s how it felt to me then. However, this little tidbit is of some note: it wasn’t until after the song was over that Dharamraj revealed the song’s name, “Bohemia: Memories of Childhood.”
Something tells me Terry, Alonso, and Dharamraj knew exactly what they were doing when they gave the song its title. Bohemian Trio have already finished their run, but they have an album on the way. Pick it up.
In the days and weeks after the Nov. 13, 2015 Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris, Jesse Hughes became the unlikely face of the tragedy. As the singer-guitarist for the Eagles of Death Metal, the band that had taken the stage that fateful night, Hughes was front and center during the attack. As such, everyone wanted to know his story.
Although the Greenville native was not exactly used to the unforgiving glare of the international spotlight, he spoke freely about the incident, regardless of how much it pained him to do so. Each interview was gut-wrenching. Not surprisingly, the French people collectively embraced him as one of their own.
Eventually, the media moved on to other things, some important, many trivial. From time to time, a news agency would do a follow up story on Hughes. At first the stories, were more or less profiles of the quirky and charismatic rock star. A hard-partying hellion who dates a one-time adult film actress, Hughes is also a devout Christian, a gun lover, and a Donald Trump supporter. Clearly, the band leader is a man of contradictions. But since then, another side of Hughes has emerged — that of a deeply troubled man whose recollections of that day seem to be transforming.
Today, Hughes believes that the Bataclan attack was an inside job and that Islam itself is a poison. He also believes that atheists and political correctness are destroying America, all while Jesus is watching and waiting to punish nonbelievers with all the fury of the evil men who opened fire on a music hall full of people on Nov. 13, 2015.
Like many others, I’ve wondered what happened to the man that I admired and that the French people loved — or at least they once did. The answer is quite simple: Jesse Hughes is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and it has fundamentally changed who he is, and perhaps who he can ever be. In the search for explanation, Hughes has fallen into a rabbit hole of ever-shifting, self-replicating memories, recollections that increasingly seem to be inventing moments and twisting his entire world-view, as waking life itself has transformed into a nightmare from which he can never awaken.
Such is the world that one character enters in the compelling shadow puppet drama Ada/Ava.
Performed by the Chicago troupe Manuel Cinema, Ada/Ava tells the story of twin sisters who have been joined at the hip all their lives. When Ava passes, Ada is not only devastated, she rather quickly becomes the victim of her own inability to process the pain and loneliness that she feels — as well as her own death that she knows is sure to follow. Refusing to let her sister go, Ada begins suffering from frightful dreams and delusions. These horrific hallucinations eventually manifest themselves during a terrifying trip through a mirror maze at a traveling carnival, a carnival that is very much like one that Ada and her sister visited many, many years ago. Although Ada/Ava ‘s run has ended, I don’t want to give away any more details; you may have an opportunity to see this one day, and you should. Manuel Cinema’s work is the rare shadow puppet show that is emotionally powerful. It’s not merely an exercise in “golly-gee, how did they do they that?,” as so many are. Ada/Ava is a genuinely moving work, perhaps even a masterpiece.
I’m not sure, but at some point within the first 15 minutes of The Little Match Girl, I scribbled in my notebook, “Oh for fuck’s sake.”
The reason was not the jarring symphony of noise that fell from high above the stage like a monsoon of acid rain, burning ears and laying the seeds for toxic nightmares to come. No, that was all very well done, and frankly rather enjoyable. Led by Spoleto resident conductor John Kennedy and propelled by Helmut Lachenmann’s dissonant yet captivating score, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra flawlessly executed the well-crafted cacophony. Meanwhile sopranos Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta handled their bric-a-brack vocal duties with aplomb. All are worthy of praise, and Buck and Kakuta were quite mesmerizing to watch as they wailed, hiccuped, and made strange guttural noises that, in polite society, would have a person labelled a cretin at best and a madman at worst.
While some audience members were surely taken aback by the music, this wasn’t my first time visiting Lachenmann’s opera. I had already listened to it several times in the weeks before our little international arts festival, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. My ears are well accustomed to chaos, whether it’s John Zorn’s Naked City or it’s more streamlined pop varieties in the form of Mike Patton’s various projects or Serj Tankian’s criminally under-appreciated Jazz-Iz Christ.
What caused me such distress — and which quite frankly almost compelled me to shout what I had written for the rest of the audience to hear — was instead the tedium of having to read the opera’s libretto, which was broadcast in fits and starts on the screen at the front of the stage. It was a particularly maddening experience that violated the cardinal rule of any narrative form: Show, don’t tell. It was like reading a 2,000 word-essay through a busted faucet that leaked according to no particular rhythm.
And that doesn’t even get into the amateurish way that the shadow puppets were handled, a fact that was compounded after seeing the skillful and emotional powerhouse that is Ada/Ava. Whereas in Ada, the puppets became living, breathing creatures, in Match Girl, they were just props that casts their shadows across the screen in dashes and darts. It was almost as if the puppeteers had no idea what to do with the puppets and just decided they’d, to use the parlance of our times, wave them around like they just don’t care. Coupled with the text, the puppet work caused me to actually laugh out loud five times. A couple of times, my eyes even began to water from the strain of holding back a guffaw.
However, there was a brief glimmer of hope two-thirds of the way through the opera with the introduction of a character, called the narrator, but who we’ll assume is Hans Chris Andersen. Andersen was revealed to be operating behind the scenes, crafting the opera, it would seem, as we were watching it. Suddenly, The Little Match Girl, as a whole, became something exciting, something stirring, something mysterious.
At that moment the possibility that all prior sins could be forgiven was very much a reality, and that the opera’s plot and subplot — a seemingly tangential matter involving a female terrorist — might come together in a cohesive fashion. Sadly, that’s not what happened. Instead, the performance reverted back to its previous trappings, leaving the audience to count the very long minutes until the titular child passed away.
As we exited Memminger, a sizable contingency stood and clapped; however, judging by the words that were coming out of their mouths, it appears that some of them may have been from Lachenmann’s native Germany. At the very least, they fully understood much of the narration — including one section about a female terrorist in which I could pinpoint various Marxist buzzwords. As such, they were privy to what I now believe was a tale that was a wholesale condemnation of capitalism. In hindsight, it became increasingly clear that the Little Match Girl hadn’t actually died at all, but that her spirit had — the one that believed in entrepreneurship and capitalism — and that out of that death was born an anarchist hellbent on destroying the system.
If the Lachenmann’s score and Spoleto Festival Orchestra’s work had been anything short of brilliant, The Little Match Girl would’ve received an unforgiving F instead of a C. However, it all very easily could have been a solid A. With less of a focus on the emo-diary text and a decision to use the shadow puppets as something more than an amateurish garnish placed alongside the music, Spoleto’s The Little Match Girl could have truly been the revolutionary work it was intended to be — and that I wanted.
One of the great joys of Spoleto is chatting with your fellow Spoletians, if not because they share a common interest — they’re as excited about the fest as you are — but also because you get to make what Tyler Durden would call a single-serving friend, a term that I increasingly believe should be viewed positively and not as a pejorative, as Chuck Palahniuk intended.
On Saturday night, amid the mini-monsoon, I had a chance to talk to a lovely couple from Columbia at Fast and French. Like me, they were using getting a bite to eat and some wine as an excuse to get out of the mini-monsoon — or is it the other way around? Either way it doesn’t matter. They were lovely folks.
Like many, they were repeat Spoleto attendees and had taken in the Bill T. Jones performance. They didn’t really say much about it, but that was probably more of my fault because they asked what I had seen, and I told them Porgy and Bess. The conversation quickly turned to that.
They’d tried to get Porgy tickets, but ticket prices had increased well past their price range once they got around to trying to order their tix; in case you didn’t know, Spoleto employs a common enough venue practice called dynamic pricing whereby ticket prices increase or decrease based on the frequency and number of tickets sold or not sold, which is why the official Spoleto guide in January may indicate that a show is $45 but in reality all current tickets are $60.
Oddly enough, we talked little about the festival. Instead, the subject of newspapers was on the agenda. My single-serving male friend asked me if I had heard about the sale of the Free Times in Columbia to The Post and Courier. Although he was a little bit worried about the purchase, he was, by and large, pleased that The State hadn’t bought it and the P&C had. That said, he absolutely despises the P&C‘s pay wall. Since he was my friend, single-serving or otherwise, I told him he could bypass that bullshit by searching in incognito mode on his browser.
At the Ada/Ava showing, I met a nice woman from Aiken. She’s a long-time Spoletian. In fact, it was her mother that made her a regular. My Emmett Robinson Theatre neighbor told me a story about how her elderly mother begged her to go to Spoleto one last time before she passed. Ever the dutiful daughter, my new friend relented. Needless to say, that went on for three more years.
My row-mate also told me about one show many years ago by an Israeli dance troupe. She didn’t say the name, and I didn’t ask. These things are usually unimportant unless you’re talking about a household name — like say Ella Fitzgerald, who the lady saw at Spoleto years ago. During the Israeli dance show, which took place at the Gaillard, the troupe members came down from the stage and pulled members from the audience. My friend balked at first, but ultimately relented. Of course, when the time came for the audience members to be sent back to their seats, the dancers kept my friend on stage, danced around her, and then dropped to the floor, leaving her in the spotlight. Needless to say, she was terrified … and thrilled.
And that, my friends, is what Spoleto is all about.