Spoleto continues its ambitious exploration of the black experience and the spectre of racism 

Finding Grace in a World of Fear

click to enlarge 'Grace Notes' featured three singers who served, in part, as the three choruses

William Struhs

'Grace Notes' featured three singers who served, in part, as the three choruses

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 Marley 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 or that wretched Starsky and Hutch remake. 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. 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 too well.

Weston celebrates the fact that Africa's contributions to music go much further than simply inspiring American musical forms. As the jazz man told us in his thrilling performance last Thursday 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 that triggers a hard-wired part of our being. We feel it in a physical way that we don't with 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 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.

click to enlarge Randy Weston's jazz ensemble wowed the audience - WILLIAM STRUHS
  • William Struhs
  • Randy Weston's jazz ensemble wowed the audience

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 propagandist 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. 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."

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 its own bigotry, by omission or otherwise.

* * *

My neighbors live in fear. Not all of them, mind you, but there are enough who are vocal about it. I'm worried that their fears are spreading, multiplying, transforming the very fabric of the neighborhood where I have lived for nine years.

I am a proud resident of Park Circle, and my neighbors are beginning to frighten me, shame me, sadden me. All of that is hypocritical, I suppose, condemning one group for the very same feelings that I'm now feeling, but I feel that my community — a diverse, multiracial neighborhood of seniors, young families, professionals, bohemians, blue collar workers, trailer park denizens — is shattering. We are becoming a stratified little world divided between Us and the Undesirables.

Undesirables — that’s not my term. That's a term that was being tossed around on one of the Facebook groups used to describe those who ride the buses, buses that have historically cut through our neighborhood, driven down our streets, passed our homes.

Recently, the routes changed. A new stop was created across the street from my house, and others were created elsewhere. This was the source of anguish for some who didn't use the bus to get around. If they needed to get somewhere I suppose thy did so by driving a car or riding a bike. But these people who rode the bus, these undesirables, they had no business being on our streets, our sidewalks, in such close proximity to our homes.

Fortunately, many of my neighbors quickly corrected them, pointing out that these undesirables were just hard-working men and women trying to get to their jobs or go to the grocery store or the outlet mall area. Some even mentioned that they had been bus riders.

click to enlarge 'Citizen: An American Lyric' uses author Claudia Rankine's book as its foundation - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • 'Citizen: An American Lyric' uses author Claudia Rankine's book as its foundation

Us — I'm not sure who that really is. I don't know who's included in that group or the specific rules that grant you membership into that exclusive club, but some of my neighbors do, and I'll go with what seems to be their definition. It's not the two black men engaged in a lively conversation on the sidewalk. It's not the black guy looking for some work. It's not the black teen cutting through a "nice" neighborhood on his way to his home in a bad one.

What's even more depressing is that some of these people I admire — or did. After all, how can you still admire someone when you learn they call poor blacks hood rats, that they refer to local housing complexes as the ghetto, and that they see every black teenage boy as a thug? That says nothing about Those of Us who openly mock black speech patterns or dismiss hip-hop for no other reason than, well, I'm not sure why they hate it. I just know they think it's garbage, pure garbage.

Oddly enough, most of this fear is the result of one single thing: Some of Us refuse to lock our car doors. We say that we just forgot this one time, this one time — work's too stressful, the kids were going crazy, why can't it be like it was in the 1950s? Inevitably, on the one night they forgot to lock their car, a thief rifled through their vehicle. More often than not, the thief stole nothing — not even loose change. However, that hasn't stopped some from calling for an armed neighborhood watch to patrol the streets. This is not a joke. And it's certainly not funny.

Today, Many of Us see Undesirables everywhere and we hear gun shots throughout the night, some real, some imagined. We worry about the door-to-door salesmen, the folks who toss the weekly shoppers on our drive-way, the real estate agent who is taking a photograph of a house. Oh and those folks who ride the bus.

Pure Theatre's latest, Citizen: An American Lyric, speaks to this fear, but instead of being from One of Us, it's from the perspective of those who are most often on the receiving end of my neighbors' fear — black people.

Largely a verbatim adaptation of poet Claudia Rankine's work of the same name, the Piccolo Spoleto production of Citizen is a collection of vignettes. Some are first-person accounts, some are selections from other works, and some are brief essays of a kind. Together they all tell the same tale: the myriad ways that blacks are treated with indignity by whites on a daily basis. These slights can be both small and huge, and many times throughout the play the majority white audience gasps at the cluelessness, carelessness, and hatred that white people show toward black people. It's a staggering and soul-crushing catalog of callous indignities and overt acts of racism. In the end, Citizen makes the compelling case that African-Americans as a whole spend their days suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sadly, for many whites, even those on the liberal end of the political spectrum — no, especially those who call themselves liberals — Citizen places them for perhaps the first time in the shoes of black Americans. So often white society condemns black society for lashing out at a system that continues to view them as lesser beings, others who are three-fifths human perhaps. One passage in particular should be taken into account by white audiences. In it, Rankine borrows from Langston Hughes, warping his words to craft a truth that whites will find frightening: "And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred: who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance ... to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled...."

click to enlarge 'Grace Notes' - WILLIAM STRUHS
  • William Struhs
  • 'Grace Notes'

If you find that to be extreme, well, that's expected. But after sitting through an hour-plus of the pain that black folks have to put up with on a daily basis, white audiences will surely come to the realization that if they faced such indignities they would not have shown as much restraint or even the smallest droplet of grace.

Grace — we've heard a lot about that work in the past year.

After Dylann Roof was arrested for entering Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015 and killing nine, the white community in Charleston was taken aback when the victims' families stood before the shooter and told him they forgave him. After all, I heard many white people say, "If that bastard had murdered a member of my family, I'd have killed him right there in the courtroom."

This anger is to be expected. It's human to respond this way, to feel this way, to say these things. This is normal. All of which is why the response of the Emanuel Nine families was all the more extraordinary, for their response wasn't human. It was godly. And in their presence we all kneeled.

Photographer Carrie Mae Weems takes the grace shown by these men and women and uses it as the intellectual starting point of her Spoleto show Grace Notes: Reflections for Now. The multimedia performance is of a more mystical nature than Citizen; as such, it can be a bit of a hard pill to swallow for those looking for clear paths. But regardless of its challenges, Grace Notes is filled with passages that will long stick with you. I know that I won't soon forget the sight of a black man in a black hoodie running continuously on a treadmill — a representation of all the unarmed black men who have been shot by law enforcement. I also won't forget a segment in which two silhouettes tell an increasingly nasty series of racist jokes, the punchlines of which made many in the audience laugh, a laughter that for some was out of discomfort but for others it offered a particular bigoted truth.

And as Grace Notes and Citizen argue, we must confront the uncomfortable truths about American society, the relationship between blacks and whites, and the inequalities and prejudices that the African-American community still faces today. Sadly, there is little reason to hope that we will. The families of the Emanuel Nine have apparently changed their minds. Today, some support the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof. For some that grace has apparently been revoked.

Meanwhile, on Memorial Day, a white man was shot and killed outside of his hotel in North Charleston. He and his wife were visiting from Ohio. The police have no suspects, and there is apparently no motive, just a random shooting from a car that sped away.

I'll be the first to admit that I can't help but picture two young black men in that car. I wish I didn't feel this way. I wish I didn't believe that we all have a reason to be afraid. I wish I didn't believe in the fear, but I do. And it doesn't give a damn about the color of your skin.


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