Afram ou la Belle Swita is an operetta that’s layered with extraordinary local sentiment. Stay with us — there are a lot of fascinating stories to unfold.
Afram was created by native Charlestonian Edmund Thornton Jenkins, who attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and was a Ross Scholar at the Royal Academy of Music in England until 1921. He eventually moved to Paris, where he wrote Afram, his final composition, before he died young at the age of 32. But while he spent most of his life abroad creating his own music, he also dedicated much of his time advancing the music of his family. You see, Edmund’s father Rev. Daniel Jenkins ran the Jenkins Orphanage, formerly at 660 King St., which stayed afloat thanks to the music of the Jenkins Orphanage bands.
The bands, which became part of the boys’ home curriculum, weren’t just for local ears — Edmund took various versions of the bands on tours from London to Berlin to Paris. And in 1927, the Jenkins Orphanage bands played every night of the Broadway run of Porgy, the play on which Charleston-centric opera Porgy and Bess was based. And this all happened eight years before George Gershwin debuted his Porgy and Bess.
“Now Porgy turns out to be famous, but Edmund Thornton Jenkins — people don’t know about,” says David Herskovits, Afram‘s director in the Spoleto-presented production. “But look — that’s the discovery. At the very same moment that Gershwin was thinking of Porgy and Bess, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward [Dubose wrote the novel Porgy and co-wrote it for the stage with this wife, Dorothy] were constructing their story of Charleston life in music, this African-American guy, Edmund Thornton Jenkins, was creating his own musical expressions of life in Charleston.”
Fittingly, both Porgy and Bess and Afram ou la Belle Swita will have their Spoleto debut this year, and both are directed by Herskovits. But that’s not all — Edmund’s grand nephew Tuffus Zimbabwe, will perform in both productions. Seeing as how Zimbabwe is also a pianist for the Saturday Night Live orchestra, it’s not hard to believe that a knack for music runs in the family. “My grandmother was a vocalist, so she left an electric air organ — it was very small — and I think she used it to practice melodies,” Zimbabwe remembers. “That was left behind when I was a child, so I used to play that. My parents noticed I was enjoying the keyboard, so they decided to get me music lessons.”
It was Spoleto director Nigel Redden who first informed Zimbabwe of the Jenkins Orphanage bands’ performances on Broadway, not far from where he works now with SNL. “There’s a lot of cool connections there, and it’s so inspiring to learn about these stories and the legacy,” Zimbabwe says. “It’s a great opportunity that I’m getting to perform his music. It’s very challenging, and it’s really pushing me, but it’s a fun challenge.”
So what else should you expect from this whimsical African romance? “It’s actually a biography,” Redden explains. The story begins in Africa with a prince and princess and later ends up on a plantation in America. “And then the action begins to move, and all of a sudden we end up in a nightclub in Paris. In fact, this is Edmund Thornton Jenkins’ trajectory. His grandparents were slaves; his father was born a slave.”
Many of the compositions are musical reflections of Jenkins’ life in Charleston, even as the piece shapes into a 1920s French nightclub revue full of quirky characters, like a lounge lizard and Kentucky Kate, who introduce themselves through song. The Lowcountry-esque “Underneath the Palmettos and Pines” is among the many numbers included in the colorful cabaret, which will be aptly performed inside the club-style Woolfe Street Playhouse. “[Edmund] played in a lot of nightclubs, so this operetta was meant for that kind of setting,” Redden says of the Woolfe Street Playhouse production.
“The thing that is so striking is how the musical composition has such range and sophistication,” Herskovits adds. “This is not just a guy retreading familiar songs — he’s writing his own material. This is a classically trained musician from the Royal Academy who’s really trying to compose vocal and orchestral music at the most sophisticated level, and that is exciting. I’m hoping people will really feel that sophistication.”
While the sophistication of the music is there, Herskovits says Afram is also simply a ton of fun — and all of its Charleston connections are partly to thank for that. “You feel like you found this strange shoebox in the attic with all of these marvelous things in it that an ancestor made, and you can show them to people,” Herskovits says. “They’re just beautiful and exciting, and the people who hear this are going to get something very special and rare and unique.”