If you’re not familiar with the ins and out of the folk opera Porgy and Bess, you surely know its signature tune “Summertime,” perhaps the finest piece of melancholy pop music craftsmanship next to the Beatles “Yesterday.” And since this is Charleston, you’re also probably aware that this year’s Spoleto Festival USA is offering Porgy and Bess with the hinted promise that it will be the fest’s centerpiece show. And rightfully so.
Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston, for one, and this year’s run will feature designs crafted by the Lowcountry’s very own Jonathan Greene, a painter who captures the wind-blown spirit of the Gullah people of the sea islands.
And then there’s the fact that you can visit the home of the fictional home of Porgy at 89 Church Street; it’s not exactly the Catfish Row of Porgy and Bess, but the place that Charleston-born author DuBose Heyward envisioned when he began writing his 1925 novel, Porgy, on which George Gershwin’s celebrated folk opera is based. (Later Heyward and his wife Dorothy transformed Porgy into a play, and from that Gershwin’s brother Ira helped craft the libretto.)
During a recent round of background research on Porgy and Bess — this time in the form of Hollis Alpert’s 1990 account The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, I chanced upon a curious bit of information about DuBose Heyward’s most celebrated work before the publication of Porgy, a poem entitled “Gamesters All.”
While I’ll include a link to the poem in its entirety in here, it’s worth noting that “Gamesters All” still resonates today, particularly in light of the Walter Scott shooting. The reason, like in the Scott case, a white police officer guns down an unarmed black man — in this case a craps player — who is running away. Although a game of craps was most certainly against the law, it was a crime whose punishment was considerably less than death.
The poem came directly from experience. On [Heyward’s] way to work one summer morning, he heard someone shout, “Look out!” He recalled: “I saw a large Negro racing directly towards me. A second later a policeman rounded the corner, aimed coolly and carefully, and fired. The man lurched forward and died, almost at my feet.” The incident affected him deeply. “I wanted to write what I had seen. It kept crowding between the pleasant, lazy routine of business and the off-hour frivolity of the hot season.” He decided that he would deal seriously with “the slum of the Negro in the South.”
There is no overt “message” in the poem, and, if it made a statement, it was indirect, simply the poet’s reaction to callousness and injustice. What was more unusual at the time was that a white Southerner would develop sympathy not for the white representative of law and order but the humble craps shooter.
For some today, it’s easy to dismiss the significance of this — particularly if we allow the use of outdated nomenclature to tarnish our opinion of Heyward — but at the time, there’s little doubt that the writer’s reaction to this murder was likely drastically different from the members of the Charleston white aristocracy of which he was a member. And that so many white Americans today continue to react to these kinds of atrocities with apathy at best and applause at worse is indicative of just how progressive Heyward’s words were.