The history of Porgy and Bess is the history of modern Charleston 

Gershwin-Heyward opera speaks to who we were and who we are today

click to enlarge Alyson Cambridge and Lester Lynch play the titular leads in 'Porgy and Bess'

Jonathan Boncek

Alyson Cambridge and Lester Lynch play the titular leads in 'Porgy and Bess'

At some point in DuBose Heyward's adult life, he witnessed a singular horror that affected him profoundly enough to later recount it on the page, a particular kind of violent act, unnecessary and cruel, that still resonates in the Charleston of today: he watched helplessly as a white police officer gunned down an unarmed black man fleeing from a craps game.

Hollis Alpert recounts the incident in his 1990 book, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, writing, "On [Heyward's] way to work one summer morning, he heard someone shout, 'Look out!' He recalled: 'I saw a large Negro racing directly towards me. A second later a policeman rounded the corner, aimed coolly and carefully, and fired. The man lurched forward and died, almost at my feet.' The incident affected him deeply. 'I wanted to write what I had seen. It kept crowding between the pleasant, lazy routine of business and the off-hour frivolity of the hot season.' He decided that he would deal seriously with 'the slum of the Negro in the South.'"

Heyward would later draw from this experience and use it to craft the poem "Gamesters All." Writing about the poem, Alpert notes just how rare the sentiments expressed in the 1921 poem were, "What was more unusual at the time was that a white Southerner would develop sympathy not for the white representative of law and order but the humble craps shooter."

The publication of "Gamesters All" was arguably Heyward's first brush with literary fame, and it would herald him as a white writer who possessed a unique insight into the lives of black people, an insight that was brought about by years of close personal contact and observation. In fact, Heyward remarked that unlike so many of his white contemporaries, the Charleston aristocrat viewed African-Americans as "essentially human." While that phrase surely makes many, if not most, white Charlestonians cringe today — and rightfully so — in the early 20th century many whites from all over the country would have regarded the writer's opinion to be indicative of a progressive mindset.

click to enlarge Costume sketch by Jonathan Green - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Costume sketch by Jonathan Green

Flash forward to April 4, 2015, when North Charleston Police Officer Michael T. Slager gunned down Walter Scott, an unarmed man who had been pulled over in what was apparently a routine traffic stop, the kind that at worst results in a ticket and at best a simple, friendly warning. Instead, Scott ran, Slager pursued, the two tussled, and the officer fired eight shots at Walter Scott as he attempted to flee, a danger to no one, not even Slager. Five bullets struck Scott, killing him. That Heyward reacted differently than so many of his fellow white Americans did to these types of atrocities is certainly of some note, if not outright praise, but it's truly horrifying that many whites today initially reacted to the shooting of Walter Scott with the same callous apathy as some white Charlestonians did way back in 1921, at least until video footage of the shooting was released.

Although there are parallels to be drawn here between "Gamesters All" and the Walter Scott shooting, the ties are much stronger between the history of modern Charleston and Heyward's most celebrated work, Porgy, and later the opera Porgy and Bess for which he composed the libretto alongside the music of the great American composer George Gershwin. It's not so much that the two works, plus a stage play of the same name, say something specifically about the Holy City, rather it's the events surrounding Heyward and Gershwin's works that speak to us about the issue of race in our fair hometown.

"It's not so much that the two works, plus a stage play of the same name, say something specifically about the Holy City, rather it's the events surrounding Heyward and Gershwin's works that speak to us about the issue of race in our fair hometown."

But before getting to the era of Porgy's initial publication and Porgy and Bess' initial staging, it's worth noting what Charleston looked like in decades immediately before and after the Civil War. It's a picture that in some ways may challenge your preconceived notions about 19th century life in this cosmopolitan city.

Unlike other areas of the South, in particular the rural plantations, enslaved African-Americans in Charleston experienced a degree of freedom — although it feels particularly shameful to refer to it as such — that their counterparts in less metropolitan areas in the South did not. Whites and blacks lived alongside each other, and interacted with each other on a regular basis, not as equals, but at least as familiars. Slaves were often permitted to run their own businesses and live in neighborhoods far away from their masters. They attended the same religious services, bought from the same vendors, caroused at the same grog shops. As C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, "City life [in the South] proved to be clearly hostile to slavery. It corroded the master's authority, diminished his control, and blurred the line between freedom and bondage." By and large, this diminished control was the result of regular intimate interaction that urban living afforded to blacks and whites, creating "an overlapping of freedom and bondage that menaced the institution of slavery and promoted familiarity and association between black and white that challenged caste taboos."

As such, segregation was not a part of life in the South's major cities, unlike those of the North and the West, Woodward writes, "Whites of South Boston boasted in 1847 that 'not a single colored family' lived among them. Boston had her 'Nigger Hill' and her 'New Guinea,' Cincinnati her 'Little Africa' and New York and Philadelphia their comparable ghettos — for which Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, and St. Louis had no counterparts.'"

The Jim Crow author adds, "A Negro leader in Boston observed in 1860 that 'it is five times as hard to get a house in a good location in Boston as in Philadelphia, and it is 10 time as difficult for a colored mechanic to get work here as in Charleston.'"

Although blacks were generally permitted to move freely about the city and work jobs outside of the master's home — including those as sailors and ferrymen that would have seemingly offered them opportunities for escape, which, admittedly, was a common enough occurrence — it would be negligent to paint the Charleston of the antebellum years as one of racial harmony or approaching equality in any measurable form. After all, the Holy City was also home to public workhouses where slaveowners would send their slaves for punishment, out of sight of the public eye, mind you, and without themselves having to do the dirty work. As Ellen Noonan writes in The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess, a title which obviously harkens back to Woodward's tome, "an 1807 law limited punishments to no more than 20 lashes, administered no more than twice per week. According to at least one late 18th-century description of the 'sugar house,' as the workhouse was then apparently known, it contained 'dreadful machinery' for punishing slaves and a 'viewing bench' so that 'spectators [could] regale themselves with a view of the agony of suffering humanity.'"

Noonan adds, "After the alleged Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822, the city abandoned this 'reasonable' approach to punishment and added a treadmill where slaves' arms were fastened above their heads and they suffered whippings if they failed to keep up with the machine's pace.'"

click to enlarge Costume sketches for Porgy and Bess - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Costume sketches for Porgy and Bess

After the Civil War, and even with the memories of such weapons of dehumaniza tion still fresh in the minds of many, now-free blacks not only remained in Charleston, the city experienced an influx of African-Americans seeking work. They had their freedom, and they weren't going to let it go. They entered politics, formed unions, rode alongside whites on streetcars and steamers, dined alongside their onetime masters at restaurants, formed schools, and assembled in public spaces, including the Battery. In Jim Crow, Woodward recounts the experience of T. McCants Stewart, a black South Carolina native who later became a newspaper man in Boston and New York. About Columbia, S.C., McCants wrote, "I feel about as safe here as in Providence, R.I. I can ride in first-class cars on the railroads and in the streets. I can go into saloons and get refreshments even as in New York. I can stop in and drink a glass of soda and be more politely waited upon than in some parts of England.'"

McCants even went as far as to assert, "[The] Palmetto State leads the South in some things. May she go on advancing liberal practices and prospering throughout her borders, and may she be like a leaven to the South; like a star unto 'The Land of Flower,' leading our blessed section on and on into the way of liberty, justice, equality, truth, and righteous.'"

So what happened? A combination of things, of course. Northern troops returned home, the Party of Lincoln lost power, rural white Democratic Party populists like "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman rose to power after years of terrorizing and murdering the black population, and in 1895 South Carolina enshrined segregation into the state Constitution, instantly transforming blacks into second-class citizens and ushering in the era of Jim Crow, a system of oppression that originated in the northern states.

Even though Charleston never fully abandoned the close contact that blacks and whites had previously shared, it was in this era of segregation that DuBose Heyward grew up and Porgy was born.

Heyward was a member of the Charleston aristocracy, although throughout much of his life, his family struggled to make ends meet. His mother worked as a seamstress, and later he spent time as a clerk at the docks, where he made friends with the black longshoremen. And on a daily basis, he also walked past 89-91 Church Street, a.k.a. Cabbage Row, a tenement home in which African-Americans lived.

In addition to this close proximity to and interaction with the city's black population, Heyward also had an eye for observation. Coupled with his general sympathy towards the condition of Charleston's African-Americans, albeit of the paternalistic quality that many of the Holy City's upper-crust still hold to this day, Heyward was able to capture a portrait of black America that many had never seen. In 1925, he published Porgy, the tale of a crippled beggar who longs to be with the troubled Bess, the drug-addicted girlfriend of the murderous Crown. The novel was an instant hit, immediately elevating Heyward to the upper pantheon of then-contemporary American writers and putting Charleston on the map, once again.

With the heroic tale of the beggar Porgy, Heyward sought to present "a psychologically true, serious picture of contemporary Southern Negro life," and the critics agreed, with some calling it, as Alpert writes in The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, "the best novel of the season" and "of a beauty so rare and perfect it may be called classic." (In Noonan's history, the author notes that one critic declared that with the publication of Porgy "nothing finer [had] occurred in American literature since Uncle Remus," dubious praise if there ever was one.) Heyward was also celebrated for capturing the unique Lowcountry patois of its black residents — although not those of its white ones who, at the time, surely possessed an even more pronounced brogue than long-time white Charlestonians do today.

A peculiar idea took shape, namely that Heyward — like an explorer stumbling upon a completely isolated tribe in the South Pacific with a set of customs that vexed and tantalized polite Western European society — was something of a literary anthropologist who hadn't so much as crafted a novel about a particular subset of American society, but had written an authoritative account of life for blacks in Charleston circa 1925, a fact best typified by the glowing praise heaped upon it by the celebrated and Harvard-educated New York City columnist Heywood Broun. Writing about Porgy, Broun wrote, "For the people of Porgy are savage aliens ... And in recognizing an alien quality in the Negroes of his story, Mr. Heyward takes a step forward beyond the usual attitude of white writers in the South who deal with Negro life." Broun also noted that he was "fully prepared for another of those condescending books about fine, old black mammies and the like" but was pleased to discover Heyward had captured "the incredibly rich material of Negro life, which so far has been neglected." Meanwhile, the Southern writer Frances Newman had this to say about Heyward's exploration of this strange, not-quite-human culture in the New York Herald Tribune: "I do not know whether or not Porgy's emotions are emotions that a crippled Negro beggar could suffer or enjoy, and I do not know whether or not the affection and the weakness of his Bess are ethnologically possible." Although Newman was a satirist, Noonan in her work gives no indication that the reviewer was being anything more than sincere.

click to enlarge Porgy and Bess’ production design was created by Charleston artist Jonathan Green - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Porgy and Bess’ production design was created by Charleston artist Jonathan Green

Throughout the South, Porgy was met with near-universal praise, with the sense of otherness replaced by familiarity. According to Noonan's Strange Career of Porgy & Bess, the Atlanta Journal wrote, "DuBose Heyward has told a story of the Southern Negro that has long waited for the proper interpreter," while the Charlotte Observer and the Charleston Post praised Porgy for avoiding portraying the novel's black characters as "caricatures," "clowns," and "house servants," with the Post, in particular, pointing out that Porgy, Bess, Peter, and Maria are not the blacks you typically find in a "musical comedy variety which ingratiates itself by means of toothsome smiles and dislocated English." Meanwhile, the Charleston News and Courier noted that "Catfish Row and its inhabitants [are] as real to us as the Negroes we know." However, paternalistic bigotry still managed to rear its ugly head, with Southern reviewers referring to the characters as "primitive," "savage," "half-barbaric," while others spoke about the inherent "quiet humor and persistent cheerfulness" of the black characters, a stereotype based on the belief that African Americans were cherubic, childlike spirits who were designed to carry hardship with ease, unlike their more fragile white counterparts. Those beliefs were also used to justify slavery. And Heyward was also among those who shared them.

According to Heyward himself, "the Negro ... is possessed of a genius for forming happy, human relationships, for inspiring affection, for instinctively divining the mood of one with whom he comes in contact, and of accommodating his own mood to that of the other. He was temperamentally ideally suited to make his own way in a state of slavery."

Noonan adds, "[Heyward] described the master-slave relationship as 'something beautiful and tender and enriching to both black and white,' which had bound blacks and whites 'together in affection and mutual understanding throughout the vicissitudes of two and a half centuries.'" In Heyward's world, blacks were better off if they remained forever in this childlike state where they have to be cared for by white society.

That someone could have such a misguided point of view about his subjects and yet render them in such loving, tender detail and buck the trends toward the Stepin Fetchit caricatures so popular at the time onstage, in print, and later on the radio and silver screen, is baffling. But therein lies, to paraphrase the Drive-By Truckers Patterson Hood, the duality of the Charleston thing, a duality that continues to present itself in the years that followed as Porgy was adapted as a stage play and later as Gershwin's classic folk opera.

While Charlestonians have long been proud of their connection to Porgy and Bess — and in the years after the release of the novel and opera, used it to promote its then nascent tourist industry — they haven't always embraced what it means to stage an opera featuring an all-black cast and how to do so before its citizenry, white and black. Heyward himself tried to bring Porgy and Bess to Charleston before his death in 1940, only to have that production fail due to, what Noonan calls "white opposition," while a 1953 production that had already begun rehearsals was pulled at the last minute by white organizers because the NAACP objected to the decision to set the opera before a racially segregated audience. Later, any screenings of the 1959 motion picture adaptation of the opera starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge were banned out of fear of black unrest. It wasn't until 1970 that Porgy and Bess was finally performed in Charleston for the first time, a sad reminder of how institutional racism deprived all Charlestonians of this pivotal work in American cultural history. (The black community, in particular intellectuals, the media, and the middle-class, have always been split regarding Porgy and Bess; some are proud that the Gershwin opera featured an all-black cast and told a very human story, others felt that the characters' lowly status reinforced negative stereotypes, with some certainly feeling that both sentiments were equally true. In Charleston, the work was generally embraced by both blacks and whites, although people of both races took issues with the opera's depiction of gambling, drug use, and sexuality.)

click to enlarge Green's 'Inlet Bounty' - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Green's 'Inlet Bounty'

All of which brings us to Porgy and Bess at this year's Spoleto. If you've read our overview, you know that much of Spoleto 2016 will be intensely focused on African-Americans, both their contributions to art and their unique American story, from Carrie Mae Weems' Grace Notes (which centers on the Rev. Clementa Pinckney's funeral) to the hip-hop dance show Opposing Forces (a production that explores race, gender, and hip-hop culture) to, most importantly, Spoleto's production of Porgy and Bess. Nigel Redden and the entire Spoleto crew should be applauded for using the arts festival to examine race and the Holy City's most recent wounds, the shooting death of Walter Scott and the race-war slaying of the Emanuel Nine. After all, it would have been negligent if they had ignored these two events that shocked Charleston — and our nation.

Given all this and Porgy and Bess' history and Charleston connection, as well as the racial make-up of the cast, it seemed troubling if the classic folk opera was presented solely to the typical Spoleto audience, that is affluent, middle-aged-to-senior white men and women. This isn't to say that other demos don't attend Spoleto shows — and it goes without saying that the days of segregated theater ended decades ago — but if you've attended festival events over the years, then you've surely known that ticket holders are predominately white. This isn't a condemnation of either Spoleto or its attendees — just a fact. However, if there was one production where it was imperative to bring before the town's African-American community, many of whom are the descendants of the very people that inspired the Gershwin Brothers and Dubose Heyward's opera, Porgy and Bess is it. To do otherwise would taint the whole production with an air of white privilege and Charleston's historical brand of paternalistic elitism. To complicate matters, the entire run of Porgy and Bess is sold out.

Fortunately, the Spoleto team worked feverishly trying to find some way to get the folk opera out into the city and to do it in a way that doesn't discriminate. 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, "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." Meanwhile, the opera's director, David Herskovits, had this to say: "Anyone can feel how this town loves Porgy and Bess. People in Charleston connect to the story and music in a uniquely powerful way."

Both Redden and Herskovits have good reason to be excited. Not only will this be one of the rare times that Porgy and Bess will be performed in Charleston — and in a manner whereby the production will be presented free of charge before the masses, an uncommon, if not unknown occurrence for a Spoleto show of this scale — this production will feature stage and costume designs inspired by our very own Jonathan Green, a Lowcountry painter who normally focuses on pastoral images of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands. And given the colorful and vibrant nature of Green's works, the Spoleto 2016 production of Porgy and Bess will surely have a more lively and vivacious feel to the normally squalid setting of Porgy's Catfish Row, which in too many productions is a derelicte-chic caricature of the bustling tenement that Heyward walked past every day at 89-91 Church St.

And so, in some ways, we've come full circle. Just as the shooting in "Gamesters All" is mirrored in the murder of Walter Scott, the celebration of one native son is joined by another, but instead of repeating the past, the Charleston of 2016 — at least we hope — is different from the Charleston of 1921, 1925, 1935, 1953, or even 1970. The officer who shot Scott will have to face a jury of his peers for what he did, and Green, well, let's just say that his artistic vision — and, mind you, this is one he doesn't share with the director Herskovits — was to imagine Porgy and Bess as not taking place in the segregated world of DuBose Heyward, where paternalistic, institutional bigotry ruled over the lives of the Holy City's black population, but instead a world where the forebears of the men and women who reside at Catfish Row come to America of their own free will. And so the set designs and costumes will feature decidedly African motifs dominated by bright colors, traditional African clothing, and expressive patterns. It's an exciting starting point and one that inevitably informs any viewing of the opera.

In the end, however, one wonders how this bit of veiled historical revisionism will be received. Will audiences view it as a bold statement, a reclamation of this story by the very people its about, or will it be viewed as another curious and somewhat troubling step in the long and strange career of Porgy and Bess? On Fri. May 27, we'll find out.

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