Saturday, June 4, 2016

Randy Weston celebrates his roots, the Post and Courier ignores theirs

Healing Music, Wounding Words

Posted by Chris Haire on Sat, Jun 4, 2016 at 11:13 AM

  • Julia Lynn Photography
Snoop Dogg is one of those rare artists who is no longer beholden to the rules that govern other artists, whether they're actors, singers, or writers. He no longer has to release a new album to stay in the public consciousness. He doesn't have to star in another movie or a reality show to remind us who the D-O-Double G is. Snoop Dogg is Snoop Dogg even when he proclaimed that he was the reincarnation of Bob Marely and renamed himself Snoop Lion. He is just as iconic of a character in American culture as Charlie Brown or, well, Snoopy.

But unlike that dynamic duo, Snoop isn't bound by the printed page. He's a living, breathing cartoon character who has a stable of catchphrases benefiting a proper denizen of the funny pages. Good grief, my nizzle. 

But like Cathy or Garfield or Hagar the Horrible, we don't seek out the guidance of comic creations when it comes to the issues of the day. We seek them out for laughs.

And so, when I first began seeing reports that Snoop Dogg was calling for a boycott of the new Roots mini-series, I figured this was little more than the latest Funny or Die video. Sadly, this wasn't the case. The one-time gang member and murder suspect was upset because the story of the courageous Kunta Kinte propagated negative stereotypes about African Americans. The irony was surely lost on Snoop, but then again, he was likely stoned when he took to the interwebs to condemn the critically acclaimed History Channel production. 

That said, Snoop's reticence to watch Roots is certainly understandable. It's certainly not light-hearted fare like the rapper-singer's Soul Plane, that wretched Starsky and Hutch remake, or the 2012 straight-to-video stoner comedy Mac and Devin Go to High School. However, the tale of Kunta Kinte, or at least his real-life counterparts, is a vitally important one that must be told. Like stories about the Holocaust, these stories must be told time and time again because there are forces among us who wish to erase those moments from our shared, sometimes shameful, but always hopeful, history.

But even worse than the deniers and the whitewashers, of which there are many, there are the hordes of the indifferent, those wretched milquetoasts of cowardly, non-confrontational dispositions who would gladly ignore the parts of history that remind them of all the ways in which their nations and their religions have been responsible for the most unimaginable atrocities. If we don't confront these things, then we fail to appreciate the victories that we have achieved and the debts that we owe to our righteous and courageous forebears. 

Randy Weston understands this. In fact, the jazz great, and black nationalist, has such a great appreciation for his heritage that he has built a career exploring the roots of American music in Africa, a fact that anyone familiar with our nation's contributions to the world of music — jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, soul, hip-hop — knows all quite well.

Weston celebrates the fact that Africa's contributions to music go much further than simply inspiring American musical forms. All music began in Africa. As the jazz man told us in his thrilling performance Thursday night at the Gaillard Center, the continent is our collective ancestral home, and it is there that our kin first took up percussion instruments and began to sing in order to mimic the symphony that Mother Nature had surrounded them with. This music also provided mankind with one of its most basic forms of communications. Today, it's clear that there's something about music, in particular the sounds of Africa, that triggers a hard-wired part of our being. We feel it in a physical way that we don't other forms of art. Our bodies instinctively respond to it. Surely, this has something to do with, as Weston says, the rhythm of our hearts. The beat just isn't in our blood, it powers it.

Throughout the evening, Weston and his five compadres wowed the Gaillard audience with trance-like passages that were overtaken by passionate bursts in which the individual players celebrated their instruments with an unbridled joy. T.K. Blue (alto saxophone and flute) and Billy Harper (tenor saxophone) crafted intricate melodies that were one-part tongue twister and two-parts acid trip, while percussionist Neil Clarke and stand-up bassist Alex Blake surely pushed their chosen instruments to what one imagines is one beating shy of their breaking points. For the record, I would gladly follow Blake into battle, against either Donald Trumps' stormtroopers or the White Walkers — and I would do it with a smile on my face. I have honestly never seen a happier collection of musicians. 

And it makes sense. Weston believes that all music is magic and all musicians are healers who lift us up when we are feeling down. I would imagine this even applies to mournful or angry works as well, since there is a cathartic release that comes when a sad song plays or a particularly punishing round of heavy riffing comes to a close.

But what happens when you deny your roots — regardless of whether those roots are good or ill? What happens when you deny yourself that catharsis that can only come when you face your fears, your demons, your sins? Where there is this denial, there can never be healing. 

Which brings us to one of the more disconcerting parts of the current Spoleto season. Mind you this has nothing to do with Spoleto Festival USA. Nothing. It's all about our local daily newspaper, The Post and Courier, and their inability to honestly look at their history regarding not just racial matters, but Porgy and Bess

In the months leading up to Spoleto, I wondered just how the P&C would treat Porgy and Bess. Would they acknowledge the various criticisms that have been leveled at the opera? Would they discuss the work's controversial history? Would they discuss the role that their parent paper the News and Courier played in Porgy's history? Needless to say, I didn't expect them to delve into any of this in great detail. Instead, I reasoned their coverage would amount to little more than a celebration of the opera and its ties to Charleston. 

So consider me surprised when the Post and Courier actually mentioned that an attempt to stage Porgy and Bess in the 1950s fell through because of a fight over desegregated theaters. While that was true, the P&C couldn't help but try to cover up the sins of the past, either so as not to offend the bigots in our midst or to protect the paper itself. Perhaps both. No, surely both.

According to the daily, the Gershwin estate nixed the production, which, incidentally had already been hosting rehearsals. While the estate may have objected to segregated theaters elsewhere or at some later point, that's not what stopped the 1954 Charleston production. What prevented Porgy and Bess from being performed for the first time in the Holy City was the bigotry of the then-leaders of the Dock Street Theatre, who refused to allow blacks and whites to sit side-by-side in the audience, intermingling and mixing. It's a troubling omission, but one that becomes all the more glaring when you consider the role the News and Courier, in particular its long-time editor Thomas Waring, played in all of this.

In the years after DuBose Heyward published his novel Porgy, the work from which the celebrated opera was adapted, Waring became something of the book's chief promoter, according to the stellar 2012 book by Ellen Noonan, The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess. Following Heyward's death, Waring transformed into the chief propagandists of all things Porgy and Bess, mythologizing the work, its Charleston creator, and its connection to our town. That his good friend Dorothy Heyward, the wife of the Porgy author, had something to financially gain from all of must have surely played a role in this coverage, despite the ethically questionable nature of it. 

Waring was also a loathsome bigot, who, among other things, believed that desegregation would lead to the extermination of the white race. To make matters worse, Waring was still a proud supporter of segregation and Jim Crow in 1985.

With all of that mind, it should come as no shock that Waring was miffed that the black community in Charleston objected to a segregated theater for the show. He even had the gall to assign blame to outside agitators. Like many paternalistic bigots, Waring viewed blacks as a largely compliant race who willingly and happily accepted the tenants of Jim Crow. (As a side note, despite hosting the production, the Dock Street Theatre refused to allow the show to take place in its historic theater. Make of that what you will.)

In regards to the canceled show, Waring wrote, "In demanding that the audience be racially mingled, in disregard of South Carolina laws and customs, these Negroes in our opinion have not helped to promote good race relations. If upsetting these customs is the only terms on which they will participate, it is better that the project be abandoned."

He even went as far as say the white community would likely refuse "to make other attempts at public cooperation" because of this outcry and that the protest was another "wedge driven between the races." And it was. Make no mistake about it. But not in the way that Waring imagined in his bigoted little mind. The wedge hadn't been driven by the black community, but by Charleston's white community which insisted that African-Americans remain second-class citizens.

What makes all of this — the omissions, the deception — even more troubling is the fact that to the best of my knowledge the Post and Courier has never acknowledged the role that this family-owned company played in fostering racial animosity, if not hate, in the Holy City. Today, the daily is more than happy to write about the shameful past of the white terrorist and former South Carolina governor "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, but it's not so willing to look at the bigotry in their own house. Hell, it didn't take a stand against the Confederate flag until after the Mother Emanuel shooting and it continues to ignore the fact that current College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell defended the racist barbecue baron Maurice Bessinger in the early 2000s. 

If the Post and Courier is unwilling to face their shameful past and to admit to the pain they have cause the black community in Charleston, the harm they encouraged, they can never heal — this town can never heal. Yes, the P&C can talk about post-Emanuel unity all they want, but as it stands today, we cannot expect the paper to honestly cover racial issues if it can't honestly address their own bigotry, by omission or otherwise.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Cornering a Spoleto performer on an elevator is what SCENE parties are all about

Going down?

Posted by Kinsey Gidick on Fri, Jun 3, 2016 at 11:24 AM

  • Caroline Enten

Two major events occurred last night at the SCENE party in celebration of artist Aakash Odedra:
  1. The reappearance of a delicious pork-based snack, this time taking form in pulled BBQ sandwiches
  2. The debut of a Spoleto performer at a party in their honor

More to come on my encounter with Odedra, but first, allow me to set the scene.

At precisely 7:30 p.m., I confidently rode the elevator inside The Restoration up to the rooftop bar, The Watch. I poked around the deck and back room of the bar looking for the party, pausing briefly to admire what is definitely one of the best “new” views in town. Something, however, was not right. The lack of attractive men in floral sportcoats tipped me off and I realized that I must be in the wrong place. After a few minutes of questioning the restaurant hosts, I found myself kindly escorted to another building entirely by hotel employee and all-around-nice-guy, Dawayne Prioleau. As usual, off to a great start.
Requisite handsome man in floral sportscoat - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Requisite handsome man in floral sportscoat

Unflustered, I checked-in, received my wristband sans probleme, and sashayed over to the prominent Gentry Bourbon display in the courtyard entrance to the hotel. The super attractive reps (were they two sets of twins? We’ll never know) poured a Spoleto Fizz, their same, signature cocktail from the Prohibition party. Inside, I spotted my pal and SCENE board member Jenny Ferrara, who looked quite at home posing upon a velvet chair in the gorgeous hotel library in her '50s-inspired polka-dot dress and twisted updo. Ferrara mused, in her many years of Spoleto-infused wisdom, that of all the performers in the festival, it’s usually the dancers who are most likely to attend an after party. I quickly google-imaged Aakash Odedra, and committed his sweet, beardy face to memory.
Erin Perkins and Dawayne Prioleau - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Erin Perkins and Dawayne Prioleau
The party was in full swing upstairs by about an hour-and-a-half later. Inside one room, singer McKenzie Eddy crooned sweet and moodily from a corner, while party-goers fueled up on pork sliders and deviled eggs (I’m sensing a theme to the food at these shindigs, and I’m not complaining) and lined up for refills on top-shelf beverages including glasses of Miraval Rosé aka the wine of Brangelina, people. The company swears that Brad has touched at least one grape in every bottle they produce. I am happy to report that via the transitive property, I have basically now been fully fondled by Brad Pitt. 
  • Caroline Enten
  • McKenzie Eddy

Through a hallway and down a fire escape, SCENEsters outside bopped their heads along to DJ Party Dad. The idea of spreading the party out over essentially four different spaces, some inside and others out, some well lit and others dim, made it feel really special and fancy. Like that movie Stealing Beauty with Liv Tyler, when she goes to Italy to find her real father, and attends that awesome party in a villa? And every room has a different vibe and all the beautiful people? That’s what last night felt like. But I digress. 
  • Caroline Enten
  • DJ Party Dad

The absolute best part of the evening was when someone pointed to a duo of seated gentlemen, one of whom was wrapped up in three layers of black clothing in spite of the heat. He was no Charlestonian. I checked my phone several times to be sure, and as I gathered my courage to approach him, Aakash Odedra rose and left the room with his small entourage. Springing to action, I accosted Odedra at the elevator and asked if I could ride down with him. He kindly obliged, and thus triggered Niagara Falls amounts of sweat to start pouring down the back of my neck. Introductions made, I asked him how the show went (it was great), how he was liking Charleston (it’s really beautiful) and where he was off to next (Turkey!). At a loss for words, I informed him that he must be hungry. He was. Like the weather, food is always a safe topic. We discussed restaurants, and then relaxed into an easy conversation about ethnic food. Don’t be surprised if you wake up one day and see Odedra behind the counter of an Indian restaurant here in Charleston. Noting how few we have, he jokingly suggested he'd maybe return and open one. 
Caroline Enten, Aakash Odedra, and Anand Bhalt - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Caroline Enten, Aakash Odedra, and Anand Bhalt

This is your SCENE dollars at work; it isn’t all about the booze and food and, well, scene. It’s also about gaining access to performers and creating a sense of proximity to these world-class acts in a relaxed, fun setting where you can swap inane food-related observations with someone who just riveted an audience for 1.5 hours through dance and movement. Spoleto SCENE — I’m sold. 
Ben Hebel, Ally Murphy, Whiteney Naramore, and Katie Norlander - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Ben Hebel, Ally Murphy, Whiteney Naramore, and Katie Norlander
Austin Pitcairn and Allie O'Donnel - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Austin Pitcairn and Allie O'Donnel
Brangelina's rose - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Brangelina's rose
  • Caroline Enten
Lauren Powell and Allen Pendarvis - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Lauren Powell and Allen Pendarvis
Sarah Parker, Tyler Wright, and Eleanor Brockington - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Sarah Parker, Tyler Wright, and Eleanor Brockington
Gentry Bourbon reps - CAROLINE ENTEN
  • Caroline Enten
  • Gentry Bourbon reps

Tags: , ,

Critics are split on Spoleto's Little Match Girl

Match Box Plenty

Posted by Chris Haire on Fri, Jun 3, 2016 at 10:27 AM

  • Julia Lynn Photography

I can honestly say that I will never forget Spoleto's Little Match Girl, and while I thoroughly enjoyed Helmut Lachenmann's score and the performance by the show's two singers and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, the shadow puppet-aspect nearly snuffed out any fire the already cold production had left in it. 

I wasn't alone of course. Our very own Dustin Waters had a similarly dim view of the shadow puppet perforce. But what of other writers?

The Post and Courier's Jonathan Neufeld loved it, although it seems that a good deal of his appreciation for the production was the result of an earlier chat by Lachenmann. Neufeld writes:

Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl,” performed for the first time in the United States at the Spoleto Festival, presents the familiar story as a series of feelings and images in sound. Under Mark Down’s and Phelim McDermott’s co-direction, the core of the libretto is made more explicit by the projected words and images of shadow puppetry. With the addition of two texts, one from 1970s German radical Gudrun Ensslin and the other from Leonardo da Vinci, Lachenmann throws the social injustice at the heart Hans Christian Andersen’s story into sharp relief...

Lachenmann’s avoidance of melody and tonal structure has made a detractor describe his music as musica negative — music drawn from the negative space around tones, music that refuses to be music. While this isn’t a completely unfair description (and I suspect at least some of the 26 or so people who left in the middle of the performance might have something even more negative to say), it does fail to capture the richness of the sound, feeling and gesture of this immersive music. To listen to Lachenmann’s work is to see and hear the gestures of sounding bodies...

Lachenmann’s music is not easy to listen to. But why should listening to a story of a poor hungry girl freezing to death on the street be easy?
(Note: If you are having trouble with the P&C's paywall, click here to learn how to get around all that BS.)

The Wall Street Journal's Heidi Waleson wasn't as enthusiastic, writing:

Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl” was the real period piece of the three—circa Darmstadt, the experimental music mecca, in the 1970s— with its large orchestra, chorus and two soprano soloists, led by John Kennedy, who made noises for an hour and 45 minutes. Alternately chilly and assaultive, it purported to create the atmosphere of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale, overlaid with political commentary regarding outsiders, the poor, and the responsibility of “the system.” It was mostly tedious. Co-directors Mark Down and Phelim McDermott devised an ingenious shadow-puppetry production, including cutouts of text fragments, which supplied some orientation and diversion, if not much illumination.
James R. Oestreich of The New York Times was decidedly in the love-it camp.
The production, directed by Mark Down and Phelim McDermott, is performed mostly in darkness, using shadow puppets. The text appears as titles among and around the shadowy representations — mere suggestions, actually — of people and settings. The only actual character, oddly, is Leonardo da Vinci, reading from his “Codex Arundel”; Adam Klein plays him, and also reads texts by Gudrun Ensslin.

John Kennedy, with much of the music happening behind him in a surround configuration, conducted the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and the Westminster Choir in a logistical tour de force. The sopranos Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta were similarly adept in their vocal gymnastics, producing all manner of grunts, clicks and pops. Stephen Drury and Renate Rohlfing were the pianists.

Appropriately, and probably just as Mr. Lachenmann hoped, this is music hard to warm to, but there is no question that he achieved his effects. And a couple of dozen deserters aside, the crowd seemed to love it.
For the record Oestreich's statement that the crowd seemed to adore the show is something of a head-scratcher. I was there on opening night, and the crowd, aside from a handful of standing-O-vers, made a speedy exit. This is significant for the simple fact that Spoleto audiences are famously generous for giving standing Os for almost any work; to have an occasion where less than half, if not more, of the audience either stayed in their seats or got up to leave is telling. Then again, perhaps we were at different shows or perhaps I was so disoriented by the entire proceedings that I was knocked out of my senses until I was outside of the theater.

Susan Gailbreath of DC Theatre Scene was similarly enchanted but did offer a few useful critiques:

Spoleto is known for bringing not just the best from around the world. To retain its preeminence, the festival must bring the most daring and thus challenge our preconceptions about music, dance, theatre and opera advancing those forms. Haven’t most of us heard the story of the angry riot that ensued the first time Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” played in Paris?

Many of us are afraid of what we can’t understand. Art can make us look at and confront this phenomenon. Great art can move us forward.

Lachenmann’s work indeed challenges, but I found it most remarkable if not always likeable. One of its most brilliant aspects was in his choice of material. The Little Match Girl is an uncomplicated but powerful story. Most of us carry some sense of the work from our childhood, flickering images as if, like what was staged before us, lit by a match. The audience co-participates in imbuing the sounds and images with meaning. We feel the cold, get lost in the darkness, huddle there in a sense of aloneness, and drift as the little girl does from a kind of hyper-vigilance into semi-consciousness as the sounds continue to swirl around us...

There are a couple of elements that have not yet come together. James F. Ingalls is one of the most talented lighting designers working on the world stages. He has managed a remarkable feat in reducing his forces and creating a clean, “primitive” use of pinpricks of light visually to match the composer’s minimalist style. However, the cans that needed to shoot through from upstage to light the words on placards that were yanked on and off stage were not timed sufficiently well. Sometimes the signs became blurry, at others the lights grievously flooded into the audience’s eyes and reminded me of the excesses of early Peter Sellars’ productions.

The second aspect I found disconcerting is that the placement of the musicians above us meant their music stand lights spilled out destroying the magic that total darkness for the screened visuals would have made.

Overall, however, this was a most important work to bring to Spoleto, and it will continue to bring up its images to my mind.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Aakash Odedra's transcendent dance with the divine and the damned

Live Deliciously

Posted by Chris Haire on Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 12:07 PM

Spoiler Alert: Do not read any further unless you want to know details about the climax to The Witch.

When writer-director Robert Eggers released the 2016 frightener The Witch, critics universally praised this terrifying mediation on pride and paranoia. The Witch is set during the early days of colonial New England when the devout Pilgrims sought to create a Holy Land in the New World but ultimately fall victim to the same sins which have bedeviled mankind since time immemorial.

Centered around a family of exiled true believers, Egger's folk tale is fascinating for its depiction of the era and its ability to create a mood that only grows darker and more dire as the film reaches its horrifying conclusion when the family billy goat, Black Philip, is finally revealed as the Prince of Darkness himself. By this point, Black Philip has either corrupted every one in the family or killed them, all except the virginal Thomasin, who has been accused of being the titular witch by her now-dead parents and siblings.

Broken and alone, Thomasin willingly gives over her soul to Satan, signing her name in his unholy book. As the film closes, Thomasin joins her fellow witches who are dancing with wild abandon around a fire in the New England countryside. Naked, gyrating, and in the midst of a some sort of sinister ritual, Thomasin's body slowly rises from the earth and soars to the top of trees as ecstasy washes over her face. It is a look of unrestrained joy and freedom, a look that runs counter to our preconceived notions of how this moment should be, as good character willingly joins the dark side.

Watching all of this, I was reminded of the performance I had seen earlier in the day by the Indian-influenced British dancer Aakash Odedra called Rising. It was a work that was filled with moments of what felt like religious ecstasy. One piece in particular, In the Shadow of Man, came to mind in those closing minutes of The Witch

Underneath somber red lighting, Odedra was on his knees as the performance began. He was completely still. But then his body began to move, his bony shoulder blades seemingly pushing his skin to what surely seemed like the point at which it would tear. And at that moment, it became clear that what we were witnessing was the birth of a terrifying creature, a beast that would grow to something rough and fearsome but which was now frail, frightened, and alone in the world. Black Philip would have been pleased. Thomasin would have understood.

However, that one work, regardless of how much it left an impression on myself and many others in attendance, was the lone moment in Odedra's well-staged exploration of light and darkness in which the dark was, if not victorious, winning. The other works were transcendent, drawing the audience into a spiritual rush that was as powerful as a tent revival or the endless spins of a whirling dervish. If anyone had lost their religion prior to this show, they surely found it as Odedra danced among slivers of light which seemingly cut the stage or the bright orbs which hung from the ceiling like stars in the hands of their creator.

As the show came to a close, Odedra took hold of one of the glowing orbs. He shook, he shivered, he seemingly felt pleasures — and terrors — that few but the most holy have ever felt before. And while he didn't ascend to the lights, it was clear that his spirit and ours had briefly touched both the damned and the divine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Spoleto 2016: The outside press have their say

... and the word is good

Posted by Chris Haire on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 2:45 PM

  • Julia Lynn Photography
Sometimes, it's easy to forget that Spoleto Festival USA is an international arts festival. For some Charlestonians, Spoleto can often feel like just another event in our packed calendar, even though for others it's the most anticipated event of the year — you can count me among the latter.

But for those who have a decidedly blasé feeling about Spoleto, it may come as some shock that arts lovers around the nation and across the world are very much interested in our city's premier arts festival. And this year is no different, with media outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, the Charlotte Observer to the Financial Times of London all having a little something to say about this year's offerings. At the top of the list is Spoleto's production of the Gershwin-Heyward classic Porgy and Bess. 

First up the Charlotte Observer. Lawerence Toppman writes:

“Porgy and Bess” had to wait 40 years for Spoleto to give it the attention it deserved. (Well, almost all the attention: The festival chose not to use supertitles, so anyone who doesn’t know DuBose Heyward’s libretto will frequently be lost.) Small sections have been cut, notably Porgy’s “Buzzard Song,” and one of the two intermissions has been dropped to shorten your stay in Gaillard Center. What’s left flies by over more than three hours, giving pleasure in every scene.

The terrific Lester Lynch sets the tone as Porgy with excellent diction, jovial humor and a sense of deep pathos that belongs to the crippled beggar called “a piece of a man” by Sportin’ Life (cheerfully sleazy Victor Ryan Robertson, a fine Almaviva in Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” seven years ago).

There’s no weak link in the cast, from Alyson Cambridge’s poignant Bess and Eric Greene’s malevolently sexy Crown down to street criers selling honey, strawberries and deviled crabs. The Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, which makes up half the chorus, sang and acted with beauty and conviction.

Director David Herskovits and painter Green, who designed both set and costumes, can claim a large share of the triumph. They let the region’s Gullah influences creep into the show slowly, until those take over at last in a riot of color that gives Catfish Row a sense of unity.
James R. Oestreich of the New York Times also sung the opera's praises, writing:

 It took 40 years, but the Spoleto Festival USA has finally claimed its birthright, George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” and done it in high style. On Friday evening, the festival opened a beautiful new production with an excellent cast and striking visual design by Jonathan Green in the resplendently renovated Charleston Gaillard Center...

Mr. Green, himself Gullah, drew extensively on West African motifs in his visual design. His concepts are evocatively carried through in the sets, designed by Carolyn Mraz, and costumes, by Annie Simon...

The production was well worth waiting for. David Herskovits directs a large cast, invaluably including the concert choir of the Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, N.C. The communal singing throughout was superb.

Standout performers were many: Lester Lynch as Porgy, the sturdy cripple, and Alyson Cambridge as Bess, the warmhearted (and here, warm-voiced) prostitute he loves; Courtney Johnson as Clara (who sang an ethereal “Summertime”); Victor Ryan Robertson, as Sportin’ Life, the “happy dust” dealer; and Eric Greene as Crown, Bess’s current lover, in a menacing portrayal. So menacing, in fact, that there were pockets of applause when Porgy broke Crown’s neck...

The opera effectively displayed the acoustics of the revamped hall, which was designed by Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks. The acoustics of the Gaillard, which has been in use since October, are vastly improved, though not so much that supertitles would not have been welcome in “Porgy.”
The Wall Street Journal's Heidi Waleson offered up a review that looked at the challenges facing the work, bring up the very timely issue of cultural appropriation on the part of George Gershwin and Charleston's DuBose Heyward. Waleson notes:

The festival approached both potential pitfalls by engaging Jonathan Green, a local artist who was born in a Gullah community, as visual designer for the production. Mr. Green’s exuberantly colorful vision, executed by set designer Carolyn Mraz, costume designer Annie Simon, and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, suggested that Catfish Row was a vibrant West African transplant rather than a downtrodden slum shadowed by the legacy of slavery.

The overlay worked. The set, with its recognizable Charleston buildings— one brick, with an archway and a wrought-iron gate; one wooden, with an open balcony—sprouted diamond-pattern decorations on their walls and shutters as the show went on, giving things an exotic look. So, too, did the costumes, whose brightly printed fabrics and elaborately tied headwraps would have looked right at home in a marketplace in Ghana. The white costumes for the picnic on Kittiwah Island channeled Alvin Ailey’s spiritual-based dance “Revelations” and underscored the scene’s festive mood, while Sportin’ Life’s pink suit, Crown’s indigo ensemble, and Serena’s somber “church lady” skirt and jacket made those characters stand out.

The concept effectively played down the darker themes of the opera to focus on Porgy’s strength and determination, and Lester Lynch sang the role with imposing force. Alyson Cambridge made a fragile Bess, easily seduced back into her bad old ways of dope and dangerous men; her slightly edgy soprano wasn’t flattered by the hall’s dry acoustics. Indra Thomas stood out as an honest, big-voiced Serena, and Victor Ryan Robertson made Sportin’ Life a community member, not just a weaselly villain. The splendid chorus, the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, sang with a rich, vibrant sound and fine ensemble; the orchestra, under Stefan Asbury, played with verve and authority.
Waleson, like the previous two writers, noted the opera's most apparent stumble: the unintelligible vocals. However, she also took issue with the very visual presence of stage hands as being a distraction. While I understand where she is coming from, they were no more difficult to imagine away than it was to imagine that the palmetto trees that rose up from the stage were in fact pieces of painted plywood. She also made it a point to note that all the stagehands were white, but I attended Friday's show and that is simply not my recollection. Still, she offers a pretty glowing review. 

Meanwhile, the British press also chimed in, with the Telegraph placing Porgy and Bess within the context of Charleston history:

Charleston, South Carolina, is a beautiful place fraught with history, long past and all too recent. Once one of the richest cities in the British empire, it is also where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.

Simmering tensions stretching right back to the slave trade have never quite evaporated, witness the mass shooting at the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church almost exactly a year ago. Feelings were thus running high in Charleston when Monday’s performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was simulcast from the Gaillard Center into a public park near the church and dedicated to the memory of one of victims of that shooting, Ethel Lance, who had worked for many years at the performance venue...

The Telegraph also praised Green, but also had kind words for the performers:

To hear “Summertime” here is undeniably moving, especially when sung with such languid beauty as by Courtney Johnson. But the cast is strong all round. Lester Lynch’s dark baritone affords him complete possession of the role of Porgy, and the troubled Bess is radiantly portrayed by Alyson Cambridge. Victor Ryan Robertson is brilliantly slinky as Sporting Life. Under Stefan Asbury’s baton, the young players (America’s finest) of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra find all the sophistication of Gershwin’s score. If the chorus-line blocking of the director David Herskovits is a little formulaic, this is still a momentous and triumphant homecoming for Porgy and Bess.
However, a review in the Financial Times of London left us scratching our heads.

First, it repeated a false claim made previously by Charleston's Post and Courier — namely, that the Gershwin estate blocked a Holy City Porgy production in the 1950s because the production would be before a segregated audience. The truth is the 1952 Charleston production was shut down by Dock Street Theatre because the black community objected to segregated seats and theater leaders didn't want to kowtow to what they saw as the African-American community's uppity demands. It's also worth noting that the cancelation of the show that was roundly supported by the News and Courier, the precursor to the P&C. An unidentified writer for the paper wrote, "In demanding that the audience be racially mingled, in disregard of South Carolina laws and customs, these Negroes in our opinion have not helped to promote good race relations. If upsetting these customs is the only terms on which they will participate, it is better that the project be abandoned." (Psst, you can find more N&C racist BS in Ellen Noonan's The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess.)

All of that aside, I was particularly surprised to find this befuddling passage in the Financial Times:
The production, driven by Jonathan Green’s designs, imagines a time when the opera’s close-knit but struggling black community has attained a measure of urban belonging, although Green avoids indices suggesting that time is today. A Georgian brick building and a wooden house with a second-storey porch show that Catfish Row has been gentrified, and later they take on designs of west African origin, a sure indication that the community has made the locale its own.
Gentrified? Huh? Perhaps the term means something different in the U.K. then it does here.

The writer also takes issue with Jonathan Green's overall vision.

Neither the designs’ bright colours nor Lenore Doxsee’s lighting do the drama about the match between the disabled beggar Porgy and the glamorous Bess any favours, but they don’t do it serious harm either. David Herskovits’s direction of principals and chorus, however, could use a stronger profile.
Together, both statements are clear examples that the Financial Times reviewer knows little about Charleston and even less about Spoleto's Porgy and Bess.
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