“Porgy and Bess,” a classic work of the American theater whose action is set in Charleston, will be presented by Spoleto Festival USA this spring at the newly renovated Gaillard Center. The production, featuring set and costume design by local artist Jonathan Green, will open the festival’s 40th season.
Spoleto Festival General Director Nigel Redden said he thinks of it as a special gift to the community and hopes the show will stimulate conversations about culture and history, and about the current status of race relations in the aftermath of the Emanuel AME Church shootings.
“When we realized, finally, that the Gaillard would be renovated, and that it would be a new Gaillard, the best opera to inaugurate it would be ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” Redden said. “It says to the community: This new, wonderful incarnation (of the hall) is for everyone, the entire community, it’s meant to celebrate the entire community. It’s not meant to be an uppity opera house, but where people can see events that are moving and important and will somehow touch their lives.”
So “Porgy” was for Redden the obvious choice for the new Gaillard’s first big Spoleto production. But if it was to be offered, it had to be special.
“We needed a Gullah inspiration for it,” he said. “I thought about it a lot, and eventually decided it needed a specific look. The person who immediately sprang to mind was Jonathan Green.”
Redden approached Green about the project three years ago.
“I said to Nigel, ‘Of course I’m going to do it, but I ask one thing. Can I do it from (this) perspective: What if Africans had come here like everyone else?’ ”
What if the veil of slavery and oppression were removed and African culture and creativity could be celebrated freely?
Green is a beloved painter and civic leader who grew up near Beaufort, trained in Chicago, lived for years in Naples, Fla., and now calls Charleston home. His colorful, idealized pictures of Lowcountry life are sought after by collectors and appear in museums, including the Gibbes Museum downtown.
His paintings often feature beautifully clad figures whose physical presence expresses a freedom of the spirit that viewers often find contagious. Dress, therefore, always has been a key element in his work, so it made sense for Redden to ask Green to design both the sets and the costumes for the new production of “Porgy.”
Green said he seized on a 1920s context and incorporated West African and Malian styles with a little European and even Native American influences. He created a large set of detailed color sketches for Spoleto’s costume shop. And, he designed a set that drew on Charleston’s traditional architecture.
Almost all of that work was finished about a year ago, in anticipation of “Porgy” being presented during the 2015 festival, but Gaillard construction delays prevented that from happening.
Green’s first professional encounter with Spoleto Festival was in 2004 when he designed the poster that year.
“Porgy and Bess” is a favorite American opera, but it wasn’t among the earliest to appear on the stage. One of the first Americans to write operas was a black man, Harry Lawrence Freeman. His work “The Martyr” was produced in 1893. Another black man, Scott Joplin, consulted with Freeman as he was preparing his own opera, “Treemonisha,” published as a piano score in 1911.
In 1934, the same year George Gershwin completed “Porgy and Bess,” Freeman presented the first of his Zulu history operas, “The Zulu King.” He worked with all-black casts of singers, black orchestra players and black opera companies he founded himself. Today, he and his operas are all but forgotten.
Gershwin, instead, is among the most famous musicians the country has produced, and it is “Porgy and Bess” that helped clinch his reputation as a serious composer.
The folk opera was based on DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play “Porgy,” which in turn was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel by the same name.
Set in Charleston, it tells the story of a beggar who strives to rescue Bess from her abusive lover, Crown, and drug dealer Sportin’ Life. It has been fully staged in Charleston twice before, in 1970 and in 1985.
The “Porgy” production must adhere to strict requirements set by the Gershwin Foundation, Redden said. The cast and chorus must consist of black singers, so the festival teamed up with Shawn-Allyce White and the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir, which will provide a 22-member core to which auditioned singers will be added.
Johnson C. Smith University is an historically black school in Charlotte whose concert choir is well-known in that city. It performs most weeks and often tours. The choir came to the attention of Spoleto Festival USA thanks to Jay Everette, community affairs manager for Wells Fargo Social Responsibility Group, which is underwriting the production of “Porgy.”
In May 2014, a Spoleto representative flew to Charlotte to hear the choir perform at the university’s commencement ceremony. She liked what she heard, according to White.
White is intimately familiar with “Porgy and Bess.” A trained opera singer, she has performed the role of Bess as well as other smaller roles in various productions. Her mother, Barbara Buck, studied voice with Todd Duncan, the man who first played Porgy, and was in a 1976 touring production. White, as a 4-year-old, was a member of the chorus in that show.
“Hearing that wonderful music every night, it captured my spirit even as a young girl,” she said.
When she was working on her doctorate, White wrote her dissertation on African-American stereotypes and identities in “Porgy and Bess.”
Now, she’s preparing her choir for the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I hope that this unique experience performing on stage will provide growth and opportunity for this university and its music majors,” she said.
Redden said the partnership makes good sense.
“One of the difficulties that we pose for any choir anywhere is when we do rehearsals, they are throughout the day,” he said. “They have to give us their entire time, which is very difficult for a choir made up of people who have jobs elsewhere.”
Working with a student choir solves that problem, and adding another 20 voices will extend the age-range of those on stage.
The JCSU singers will begin learning their parts soon and come to Charleston in May ready to work out the staging and drama with the director and to try on Green’s costumes.
Redden said the festival likely will offer five performances of “Porgy.” Tickets go on sale in January. The cast, director and others involved in the production will be announced at a future date.
Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.