Last night, the 40th season of the Spoleto Festival USA opened with Porgy and Bess, and in attendance were many Charleston notables — from former Mayor Joseph P. Riley to current Mayor John Tecklenburg, former U.S. Sec. of Education and Gov. Dick Riley to cookbook author Nathalie Dupree and journalist/author Jack Bass, Southern Charm's Patricia Altschul and her beloved butler Michael — or at least that's who it looked like as we exited the Galliard Center at 11:30 p.m. as the opera came to its conclusion.
Make no mistake the Gershwin-Heyward classic is a mini-marathon, but it's far from an endurance test. Porgy and Bess is a captivating affair from beginning to end thanks to the timeless songs, the soaring vocals of nearly all the principal players, and beautiful set and costume designs that capture the heart and soul of the Holy City. As a result of this latter point, this is arguably the first production of Porgy and Bess to actually feel as if it's set in Charleston.
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That no one tried to actually do this in the past is almost a travesty; instead they repeatedly transformed Catfish Row into a generic early 20th century ghetto populated by downtrodden men and women clothed in rags and despair. Director David Herskovits' Porgy and Bess is is the exact opposite of this. It's a colorful celebration of the Gullah people and their African heritage and a testament to their faith and hope and love for their community.
This isn't to say that these qualities are particularly unique to the characters in Porgy and Bess nor to Charleston's African-American population, but rarely has there been a production of this opera that captures the black community as a vibrant, joyful, hard-working collection of men and women that are no different from their counterparts elsewhere in the Holy City or the rest of the United States. That may sound patronizing, but it's a sad fact that's indicative of just how far we haven't come as society in presenting the African-American community as they are and not as a collection of stereotypes. To make matters worse, this is a crime committed by both black and white artists.
Yes, there is the rare cinematic com-dram featuring an all-black cast or the occasional black sitcom, which admittedly have slipped back into the shameful world of slap-sticky blackface tropes of the past, albeit without the blackface. But rarely do you see African-American comedies that approach the black community with thoughtful dignity as we once did with Good Times, A Different World, or even What's Happening, while dramas are primarily focused on specific historical moments that give white audiences the I'm-right-there-with-you-brother feel-goods, even though these very same individuals may have sat on the sidelines kowtowing to the status quo as these important and dire events unfolded.
Needless to say, Porgy and Bess still feels like a revolutionary experience today. I'm sure it was indeed an eye-opener for the largely white audience at opening night. But whereas in the past, Charleston audiences would have bristled at what was without question a celebration of black pride, if not a sort of small-scale display of black nationalism, the Gaillard Center audience enthusiastically embraced the opera's increasing nods to African iconography and culture.
Of course, much of the credit for this goes to Porgy and Bess' visual designer and the Lowcountry's own Jonathan Green, who chose as his mood board the alt-reality idea that the men and women of Catfish Row were descendants of Africans who came to Charleston as willingly as the blue-bloods who inhabit South of Broad. It's Green's vision — as well as set designer Carolyn Mraz and costume designer Annie Simon's expert execution — that are the stars of this production. These contributions alone elevate Spoleto's Porgy and Bess to a level that few other shows this season will likely attain. They breathe new life into the Gershwin-Heyward opera and make it decidedly relevant to today's post-Mother Emanuel world.
As the opera opens, we peer through a scrim mimicking the wrought-iron gates that litter the landscape of downtown Charleston and which the African-American blacksmith Philip Simmons was known for. And we watch as the denizens of Catfish Row dance, play craps, and otherwise celebrate what was surely a long and hard workweek.
This isn't the direct visual call to Charleston. The central structure of Catfish Row is very much a duplicate of its 89-91 Church St. inspiration, and a soft, pink Charleston single stands to its left. Behind the building, the Holy City's much-celebrated steeples peep up as billowing clouds dot the baby-blue sky. It all feels very much like home. In fact, it's a shock that so many for so long failed to capture what Charleston actually looks like.
The performances, of course, are all very good. As the heroic Porgy, Lester Lynch, brings a sturdy intensity to every line he delivers, whether tender or angry, sad or joyful — in regards to the latter, Lynch's "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" is one of the show's highlights. He is a commanding presence. Alyson Cambridge also gives a powerful performance as the conflicted, drug-addicted Bess, one which showcases her vocal dexterity and control.
But as good as our two leads are, it's the other members of the cast truly shine, and in large part, it's because Gershwin's best tunes are sung by the side players. With "Summertime," Courtney Johnson as Clara scores with a quietly impassioned and maternal lullaby, while Sidney Outlaw as Jake shows off his earth-shaking baritone with "Woman is a Sometime Thing" and "It Takes a Long Pull to Get There." Similarly, Victor Ryan Robertson (the drug-dealing Sportin' Life and the opera's resident Mephistopheles) is blessed with the most scene-stealing number the Gershwin play has to offer, "Shame on All of You Sinners." It also helps that these numbers are the least operatic of the show and the one's more suitable to American ears raised on Broadway musicals.
Which brings us to the one notable problem with Porgy and Bess: much of the lyrics are unintelligible throughout the production. Some of this is surely owed to the style, but nevertheless watching last night's production was more of an exercise of feeling your way around what was going on and less on actually knowing what was happening. This is a huge, but not insurmountable drawback, and while some audience members surely appreciated the voices as pure instruments, at nearly four hours, the lack of understanding is likely to be a source of much grumbling, and we heard grumbling.
Hopefully, this is an issue that can be corrected, and not an indication that the world-class acoustics of the Gaillard aren't exactly so world class. Either way, this outstanding production of Porgy and Bess deserves to be seen — and heard.