Shortly after the City Paper began ramping up our coverage of Spoleto Festival USA 2016 — and not long after I began a deep dive into the history of Porgy and Bess, the fest’s signature showpiece — a curious thought occurred to me, one that was brought on to a certain degree by the shooting death of Walter Scott, the race-war slaying of the Emanuel Nine, and the partial focus of the arts festival itself, the trials and tribulations of being black in Charleston and the U.S., both yesterday and today — from Carrie Mae Weems’ Grace Notes (which centers on the Rev. Clemente Pinckney’s funeral) to the hip-hop dance show Opposing Forces (a production that explores race, gender, and rap culture) to, most importantly, Spoleto’s production of Porgy and Bess, the famous, African-American folk opera set right here in the Holy City.
Given that so much of Spoleto 2016 would be intensely focused on blacks, both their contributions to art and their suffering, it’s seemed rather odd to me if Porgy was presented solely before an audience that was your typical Spoleto audience, that is affluent middle-aged-to-senior white men and women. That’s not to say that other demos don’t attend Spoleto shows, but if you’ve attended festival events over the years, then you’re surely known that ticket holders are predominately lily white. This isn’t a condemnation of either Spoleto or its attendees — just a fact.
In the case of Porgy, I thought, wouldn’t it make sense — especially in light of our town’s newfound unity — to make sure that Spoleto found a way to get the folk opera in front of the Holy City’s African-American community, in particular, it’s poor African-American members, those whose are the descendants of the very people that inspired the Gershwin Brothers and Dubose Heyward’s opera? Otherwise, the whole production would be tainted by an unnecessary air of white privilege and Charleston’s historical brand of paternalistic elitism. And so I reached out to Spoleto to find out if this was a matter they were hoping to address.
At the time, and this was several months ago, mind you, I was told that Porgy and Bess was sold out, but the Spoleto team were feverishly trying to find some way to get the folk opera out into the city.
And now they have.
On Mon. May 30 at 7:30 p.m., Spoleto will show a free, live simulcast of Porgy and Bess on a jumbotron in Marion Square, followed by another free show Tues. May 31 at 7:30 p.m. at West Ashley High School.
For Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden, the two performances are designed to “provide a way for many more members of the community to experience this production.” Redden also notes, “Charlestonians feel a deep connection to this opera that is based on a story by DuBose Heyward, one of the city’s native sons, that so evocatively represents the people of the Lowcountry.”
The opera’s director, David Herskovits, also felt it was important to bring the production to the general public. “Anyone can feel how this town loves Porgy and Bess. People in Charleston connect to the story and music in a uniquely powerful way,” Herskovits says. “Our first days of rehearsal have brought together a talented, passionate team —we’re already cooking! — and we are excited to share the results with audiences in the Charleston Gaillard Center and beyond.”
Herskovits has reason to be excited. Not only is Porgy arguably the most famous American opera, this production will feature stage and costume designs inspired by our very own Jonathan Green. While the opera is very much set in a post-slavery world, Green adopted a unique concept when developing his sketches: what if blacks had freely come to Charleston? It’s an interesting supposition, one that will, given the colorful and vibrant nature of Green’s works, add a more lively and vivacious feel to the normally squalid setting of Porgy’s Catfish Row.
Speaking of Green, Spoleto will also be giving several downtown homes — each one a significant site in African-American history — something of a Porgy and Bess makeover inspired by the celebrated painters’ concept art. The work on these Porgy Houses have already been completed, so you can check them out around town today.
For more information on the location of the Porgy Houses and on the two screenings, visit spoletousa.org.