The 2016 Spoleto Festival USA boldly explores the African-American experience 

Black is Beautiful

click to enlarge Lester Lynch and Alyson Cambridge of 'Porgy and Bess'

Jonathan Boncek

Lester Lynch and Alyson Cambridge of 'Porgy and Bess'

It's kind of a joke around here at the City Paper offices that when it comes time to pinpoint the theme for each new Spoleto Festival USA, the go-to answer is death. Or birth. Or death. Or birth. Then again, that's more or less the theme of every other work of so-called serious art.

On the surface you could say the same about Spoleto 2016. Yes, there are more than a few performances dealing with the unpleasant yet inevitable matter of our own mortality. And there are those that celebrate a birth or rebirth of some kind — crowd-pleasing couplings, a retrospective for an all-time jazz great, or the growth of an artist as a young man into a sharp stage performer. But when it comes to Spoleto 2016, this year is different. This time, the focus is the black experience, in particular, the Charleston black experience.

And rightfully so.

After all, it would have been seemingly impossible for Nigel Redden and the rest of the Spoleto USA crew to ignore the events of 2015 — the police shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was gunned down by a white North Charleston police officer, and the unimaginable horrors of June 17, 2015, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church at 110 Calhoun Street, sat with 12 parishioners while the Rev. Clementa Pinckney conducted a weekly Bible study program, and opened fire on them after they had welcomed this strange, unsettling white man into their church with open arms. In the end, nine were left dead including the Rev. Pinckney.

That brings us to Carrie Mae Weems' Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a multimedia performance that is centered around the June 26 funeral for Pinckney during which President Barack Obama delivered a powerful eulogy for the late reverend and his eight parishioners. While Weems has been diligently working on her performance, we know little about the details of her piece, but we're sure she's crafted a work that is designed to elicit a wide-range of emotions and thoughts, some we may have long suppressed or have only experienced in a passing fashion with no real-world impact to our lives. Given that Weems is African-American herself, we would imagine that Grace Notes will have something specific to say about race in America, a perspective that many festival-goers, a demographic comprised of mostly middle- to senior-aged white men and women, have not considered beyond a sort of sympathetic cable-news detachment.

The aftermath of the Mother Emanuel shooting will also provide something of a centerpiece for the May 29 performance of contemporary jazz chanteuse, René Marie, a three-time Spoleto guest. Festival organizers commissioned Marie to write a song about the shooting, a song which coincidentally, Marie was already working on. We spoke to her some months back to talk about the work, and she told us that lyrically, the new composition is something of a rallying cry. "It's about doing more than just talking about change," Marie says. "I don't think it's going to eliminate violence, but I think we underestimate how much power we have."

Race will also play an important role in the hip-hop dance performance Opposing Forces by choreographer Amy O'Neal. Featuring music by Waylon Dungan, a.k.a. WD4D, Opposing Forces will examine race and gender — mostly gender — in a futuristic setting dominated by hip-hop beats and breakdancing.

click to enlarge Opposing Forces - BRUCE CLAYTON TOM
  • Bruce Clayton Tom
  • Opposing Forces

Even the debut performance of the late Edmund Thornton Jenkins' early 20th century jazz composition Afram ou La Belle Swita is imbued with feelings about race and identity and place. After all, the late Jenkins was not only a Charleston native and the descendent of slaves, his father, the Rev. Daniel Jenkins, was the founder of Jenkins Orphanage and the Jenkins Orphanage Band, an African-American ensemble celebrated throughout the Holy City and elsewhere. The historical context of the work, not to mention Jenkins' place of birth, his race, and the orphanage itself, will make it impossible for all but the most thick-skulled of attendees to ignore the significance that all three played in his life as a black man who left the Holy City to find success as a musician in Paris, where the issue of his skin color mattered less.

Speaking of music, two of the festival's key Wells Fargo Jazz offerings also have strong connections to the singular black American experience.

First up, MacArthur Fellowship grant winner and jazz pianist Jason Moran will celebrate the works of the jazz great Fats Waller and the New York City neighborhood that inspired him, Harlem, for a rowdy evening of dance and a bit of history. And this is where the show, titled the Fats Waller Dance Party, gets a wee bit weird. Moran will don a gigantic papier mâché head of Waller through a portion of the production. Whether the mask is strictly for comic effect — Waller was a spirited showman after all — or if it possesses some different meaning, perhaps an acknowledgment of the jazz legend's huge impact ("Ain't Misbehavin'" is one of the all-time greats) or a sly nod to the cheery, comedic roles that blacks often had to play in order to be accepted by white society at large, is unknown at this point. Admittedly, assigning any greater significance to such a prop is fraught with error, but, nevertheless, the speculation is simply too much to ignore.

click to enlarge Fats Waller Dance Party - CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE
  • Clay Patrick McBride
  • Fats Waller Dance Party

While Moran is performing works from a Harlem Renaissance jazz master, pianist and composer Randy Weston has long been obsessed with the African origins of jazz and one of the musicians to consciously bring overt African elements to it, most notably on his revolutionary work, Uhuru Afrika. In addition to being a sonic revelation, Uhuru Afrika was a call for the liberation of all African peoples — the LP even kicks off with a poem from seminal Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. Since then, Weston, who was taught by his black nationalist father that he was "an African living in America," has only further explored his personal and spiritual ties to the motherland, moving to Morocco in 1967 and releasing Blues for Africa, Zulu, and African Cookbook, among others. Although one can easily enjoy Weston's music and his Spoleto performance without any prior knowledge or appreciation of his politics, it's worth noting that his music would likely not have existed without them.

But as much as these shows highlight the African-American experience, both here in the Holy City and across the nation, there is no other work at this year's Spoleto Festival that is so intertwined, for good and ill, as Porgy and Bess. Arguably the greatest American opera, Porgy and Bess was written by the celebrated Gershwin brothers and Charleston's DuBose Heyward and based off his 1925 play and 1927 book, Porgy. To say this tale of the noble yet handicapped Porgy and his lady love, the drug-addicted prostitute Bess, is the most significant artistic creation to come out of Charleston is no exaggeration, and to suggest otherwise, is to court ridicule, all apologies to Pat Conroy's various tomes to Lowcountry life aside. Many of the complexities and contradictions about the relationship between blacks and whites in the Holy City can be found in the very history of Porgy the novel and the opera. At times the two work as sources of pride for the city and, at others, as the inspiration for shameful behavior on the part of Charleston's leaders. Their shared history speaks volumes about who we are as Charlestonians, whether we are aware of it or not. Be sure to check out our preview of Porgy.

However, this particular production of Porgy and Bess has an even greater connection to the Holy City than any previous one, of which there have only been a scant three. The much-lauded Sea Island painter Jonathan Green, noted for his vibrant and breezy odes to Gullah women, was tasked with creating the inspiration for the stage and costume design for Spoleto's Porgy and Bess. As expected, Green's sketches are a kaleidoscope of color — and big bold choices for that matter — a decision that goes against the traditional choices made by most productions of the Gerswhin and Dubose opera, which often clothes its performers in little more than rags and colors and the famed Catfish Row in a palette of destitution and dirt, a muddy mess that goes against Charleston's pinks and sky blues and soft yellows and greens. This particular production of Porgy and Bess has all the makings of a stunning show, and that's without noting anything else about it, from Gershwin compositions to the singing of the principal players, including Lester Lynch and Alyson Cambridge, who play the two leads.

click to enlarge René Marie - JANICE YIM
  • Janice Yim
  • René Marie

Seeing as this is Spoleto, Porgy and Bess is not the only opera on the agenda. There's also La Double Coquette. This year, you will be hard pressed to find a work that is as lively as La Double Coquette, an opéra comique about a female cross-dresser, her lover, and the seductress that woos him away. Performed by France's Amarillis Ensemble, La Double Coquette is a reworking of Antoine Dauvergne's 1753 comic opera La Coquette Trompée, and it features a brisk, lighthearted, and occasionally whimsical score — at least based on the selections we've heard. (We would imagine that the opera's one hour and 15-minute running time will only further contribute to La Double's welcoming lightness, as will the Lego-by-way-of-Wonderland costume designs of award-winning designer Annette Messenger.)

La Double has already been performed in Shanghai and Paris, where it premiered just days after the Bataclan terrorist attack. The show was so good that one reviewer raved, "This combination of old and new is so well done that one sometimes hardly hears the transitions, so big they might be. In fact, this revision is working far better than Pei's pyramids at the Louvre ... The delicious comedy was brought to life by the terrific Amarillis Ensemble and three singers who deserve highest praise. Sopranos Isabelle Poulenard and Maïlys de Villoutreys as well as tenor Robert Getchell were vocally flawless and their playing was awesome." Hyperbole? We'll have to see. But this is an opéra comique we're talking about here, so it would behoove us all to lighten up.

Speaking of laughter, you're sure to find your fair share of it in Gate Theatre's production of the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance of Being Earnest. The Gate Theatre is well known to Spoleto audiences, having performed at nine previous festivals, and they've scored high marks each time, something that's likely not to change given Wilde's wit and Earnest's timeless laughs.

The Importance of Being Earnest is not the only whimsical delight at Spoleto Fest 2016. UK playwright Duncan MacMillan and comedian Jonny Donahoe will also be bringing the one-man show Every Brilliant Thing, and having read the play, we can safely assert that it is the funniest show about suicide you'll ever see. Every Brilliant Thing is the tale of an unnamed narrator — it could be either a man or woman, but in our case it's the aforementioned Donahoe — who guides us through his lifelong attempt to prevent his mother from killing herself. His solution: Compile a list of "every brilliant thing" in the world and share it with her, all with the hope that she'll see that life is very much worth living. The story follows the narrator from his childhood up through his college years and marriage, with the list of brilliant things growing ever more nuanced and profound.

Although the play is hilarious, Every Brilliant Thing is far from a farce. This is real-deal, hit-you-in-the-feels fare, albeit one packed with a hefty dose of audience participation and improvisation, much of which has been tailored to Donahoe's particular talents. We really don't want to explain it anymore out of fear of spoiling the joys of MacMillan's play, but this is one to really look out for this Spoleto season.

click to enlarge Carrie Mae Weems - CARRIE MAE WEEMS STUDIO
  • Carrie Mae Weems Studio
  • Carrie Mae Weems

This year's Spoleto will also feature two recent Grammy-winning artists as part of the fest's Wells Fargo Jazz Series.

On June 3, Cécile McLorin Salvant will be at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard to perform tracks from her album For One to Love, which took home the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album this year. Winning with just her second nomination, the 26-year-old vocalist grew up in Miami, Fla. before moving to France in 2007 to study law and music. Trained in the classical style, McLorin Salvant soon discovered jazz, which she says allowed her to better express her full range as a performer.

Also fresh off a third Grammy win for Best Instrumental Composition for the track "The Afro Latin Jazz Suite," Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra will perform at the Cistern Yard during the festival's opening weekend, May 28 and 29. Backed by an 18-piece jazz orchestra, Farrill is a pianist and composer celebrated for his Latin style. The son of composer Chico O'Farrill, Arturo was born in Mexico and raised in New York City. Preserving his family's musical legacy, while incorporating new influences like hip-hop and spoken word, O'Farrill has said that part of his mission is to expand the definition of Latin jazz.

Speaking of music, there's always the much-beloved Bank of America Chamber Series. Once again, violinist Geoff Nuttall and his crew will inject excitement into every performance, and this year's lineup for Spoleto should be no exception. Totaling 33 concerts from May 27 to June 12, the 2016 Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Series will include two world premieres from this year's composer-in-residence, Osvaldo Golijov of Argentina.

For Nuttall, mixing well-known classics with more modern pieces has been a hallmark of the lineup since he took over as director after pianist Charles Wadsworth stepped down in 2009. Joined by fellow members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet — Owen Dalby, Lesley Robertson, and Christopher Costanza — Nuttall has performed and recorded many of Golijov's compositions in the past, and he looks forward to bringing the composer's newest works to the public. "The St. Lawrence String Quartet has been working with Osvaldo Golijov since 1992, and I truly believe he is one of the most emotionally powerful and gifted composers working in the world today," says Nuttall.

Of course, there's much, much more to Spoleto that we don't have space to mention here, but suffice to say, the 17-day festival will have a little bit of everything, from two puppet-based productions (Ada/Ava, The Little Match Girl) to the sounds of two Triple-A radio faves, Old Crow Medicine Show and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.

And there's much more happening outside of Spoleto proper with the City of Charleston's own Piccolo Spoleto.

This year's Piccolo Fringe lineup at Theatre 99 can best be described as joyously unconventional, featuring the tale of a trip to Chernobyl, antebellum antics, and an improvised episode of Seinfeld. Yes, it all sounds pretty fun.

The Exclusion Zone tells the story of monologuist Martin Dockery's trip to the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In past visits to Charleston, the performer has detailed journeys to West Africa and religious hotspots. This hour-long one-man show follows Dockery as he traverses this peculiar no-man's-land in search of a mysterious room believed to possess magical powers.

click to enlarge The one-man show 'The Magic Negro and Other Blackness' stars Mark Kendall - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • The one-man show 'The Magic Negro and Other Blackness' stars Mark Kendall

For fans of FX's cartoon hit Archer, there's Big 'Ole Show. Starring Amber Nash (the voice of Pam Poovey) and Matt Horgan, this completely improvised act set during the American Civil War keeps things hot with plenty of love and lust, and it's all best enjoyed with a refreshing mint julep.

How hard can it be to make up a show about nothing? Comedy group Bellevue will take the stage at Theatre 99 to bring you an entirely new episode of improvised Seinfeld based on suggestions from the audience.

A blend of sketch comedy, improv, and character pieces, The Magic Negro and Other Blackness stars Mark Kendall. The one-man show takes an insightful and hysterical look at the media's representation of black males. Touching on everything from the racial implications of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham to Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, this performance may cause you to see modern popular culture in a new light.

Speaking about the African-American experience once again, Sharon Graci and the gang at PURE Theatre will be hosting the Southeast regional premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric. Based on Claudia Rankine's 2014 award-winning book of poetry of the same name, Citizen was adapted by Stephen Sachs, and it combines performance and audience participation, all under the guise of creating a discussion about race and racism. The stage adaptation of Citizen debuted last year in Los Angeles, with director Shirley Jo Finney at the helm. Finney will also direct PURE's production, while Sachs himself will be on hand for the Charleston debut on June 3.

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