Don White was on KPTZ last week hosting his “Broadway Showtime” program and talking about the musical Porgy and Bess, the 1959 film version. He started to play another cut from the soundtrack and that’s when it happened.
Suddenly, I was captive to a song I had heard before, but it was as if I was listening to it for the first time. I could really hear each word and note flowing out of the radio clear and true.
Swelling up from way down, a voice began to sing and a stage swam up before my eyes, a host of Black performers looking on while Dorothy Dandridge, as Bess, gave her soul to Porgy:
I loves ya porgy
Don’t let him take me
Don’t let him handle me
And drive me mad
As I listened, all the cultural upheaval around us came roaring into my head. There was the immediate past, the massive protests triggered by the deaths of George Floyd on May 25 and Rayshard Brooks on June 12. Then Black Lives Matter, police brutality, American troops clashing with American citizens on the streets of D.C. and with the people who fell, the statues falling.
I opened a browser to search the internet. One historical fact led to another, one incident to many more. I came upon the 2017 toppling of statues of Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders who defended slavery. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained why Davis’ statue had to come down, along with three other monuments commemorating the Lost Cause:
“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity,” Landrieu said. “This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”
I went back to 2015 when Governor Nikki Haley removed the confederate flag from the South Carolina state capital after nine Black church members were slain in Charleston, and I remembered the moral power of surviving church members, who forgave the cold-blooded murderer.
It struck me that I had only learned in the past year or so that Robert E. Lee was not a saint but a slave owner who betrayed his country. And that Ulysses S. Grant had been connected to slavery. Yes, he was from an abolitionist family. But before the Civil War, Grant had married into a slave-owning family.
Four hundred years of murders, the destruction and terrorizing of human lives whirled inside me, the horror and injustice of slavery and racism, of countless lynchings and massacres and Jim Crow—every crime committed against Americans of color.
Names reeled out of memory: Emmett Till and Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott and Ahmaud Arbery and Rodney King, and the rest of them, too many names. How many Mt. Rushmores would be needed to memorialize them all?
You might call this the education of a kid from Iowa that has been a long time in the making. You might ask where I have been all this time. But in that moment for me, everything in our turmoil past and present was pressed into that voice on the radio. Carrying her sorrowful plea to Porgy, along with the burden of four centuries, Bess’ moaning low tremolo went on:
If you can keep me
Porgy, I wanna stay here
With you forever
Transported by the music, I wondered if Porgy and Bess had been a poignant tribute to Black lives or yet another example of systemic cultural appropriation. The film was recognized for its artistic and social significance, but also stained by controversy. Back on the internet, Wikipedia said that Porgy and Bess’s reception had been generally well received. But one reviewer came down hard:
James Baldwin gave the film a negative review in his essay, ‘On Catfish Row’: “The saddest and most infuriating thing about the Hollywood production . . . is that Mr. Otto Preminger has a great many gifted people in front of his camera and not the remotest notion of what to do with any of them.” Baldwin was also critical of the sincerity of a white man directing black actors: “In the case of a white director called upon to direct a Negro cast, the supposition ceases—with very rare exceptions—to have any validity at all. The director cannot know anything about his company if he knows nothing about the life that produced them . . . Black people still do not, by and large, tell white people the truth and white people still do not want to hear it.”
This debate continues today and just as intensely—who can write about whom? It is not hard to understand both sides of the argument and I have been trying to wrestle my own answer out of the mix. Can I imagine and write about lives I know and lives different from my own in telling stories? As Baldwin might have said, we must tell the truth and we must listen.
Porgy and Bess, the 1959 film, was a version of the 1935 opera of the same name composed by George Gershwin. The opera was based on a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward, Porgy. It was set in Charleston. Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, worked with Gershwin in crafting the opera. Gershwin and the Heywards were white.
Then this: while the title of the film and opera was Porgy and Bess, the title of the book was limited to Porgy. Why the change?
The leading roles in the opera were played by Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, who was a 20-year-old student at Juilliard, the first African-American vocalist admitted there. When Brown read that Gershwin was going to write a musical version of Porgy, she wrote and asked to sing for him . . . Gershwin was impressed and asked Brown to come and sing the songs as he composed them for Porgy. The character of Bess was originally a secondary character, but Gershwin was so impressed with Brown’s singing he expanded the part of Bess and cast Brown. When they had completed rehearsals and were ready to begin previews, Gershwin invited Brown to lunch. At that meeting, he told her, “I want you to know, Miss Brown, that henceforth and forever after, George Gershwin’s opera will be known as Porgy and Bess.”
Brown sang and Gershwin listened to the truth in her voice. After reading that, I felt better. Back on the radio, Dandridge ended Bess’ bitter, resigned, hopeful paen to Porgy:
If you can keep me
I wanna stay here
With you forever
And ever, ever and ever
Ever and ever
Porgy, I got my man