Thursday, February 11, 2010


It is fitting that the historic 75th anniversary tour of Porgy and Bess should kick off during Black History Month as this masterpiece was at the forefront of audience desegregation. In 1935, the original cast refused to go on at the National Theatre in Washington, DC, unless the performers' family and friends could come to see them. Few operas have generated the controversy and acclaim that has surrounded Porgy and Bess, and few have equaled Porgy in affording a stepping stone to fame for black artists. Among the many distinguished names associated with the Porgy and Bess are Leontyne Price, Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Maya Angelou, Sammy Davis, Jr., William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Diahann Carroll, Miles Davis, Kathleen Battle and Audra MacDonald. Most recently, Fantasia's extraordinary rendition of "Summertime" was proclaimed to be one of the best performances in the history of American Idol.

Directed by acclaimed black director Charles Randolph Wright (Preaching to the Choir, Mama I Want to Sing) and co-presented by black Broadway producer Willette Murphy Klausner (Three Mo' Tenors and Kat and the Kings),this production, probably for the first time, is interpreted from the perspective of the black experience.

Porgy and Bess was the first classical work to include the jazz rhythms and melodic twists that Gershwin learned during his many visits to Harlem. Using this music as the basis for his opera, he took jazz, a musical style developed in the black community, and raised it to the level of European music - which at the time was the standard for all that was serious, sophisticated and enduring.

In the traditional telling, Porgy is a victim - a cripple who is taken advantage of by Bess, an opportunist and woman of loose morals. This anniversary production sees Porgy as man whose self-worth and human dignity grow through the love of a woman - a love that gives him the courage to leave the comfort of a world he knows in pursuit of the woman who loved him. The character of Porgy is much closer to that in Dubose Heyward's book on which the opera is based. Porgy, at the story's open, believes that God made him a cripple and meant for him to be lonely. As Bess enters Porgy's life, he grows as a man and he, for the first time, engages with the world around him.

Director Wright was particularly concerned with how the characters were dressed. Although the setting is a poor area of Charleston and the characters are from the laboring class, Wright was curious why the costuming usually consisted of burlap and tatters.

"I am descended from the types of people represented in this opera" says Wright, himself a native of South Carolina. Searching through family photos from the era and South Carolina museum archives, he saw that no matter how impoverished, blacks took pride in how they dressed.

According to producer Michael Capasso, "In terms of American opera, there's Porgy and Bess -- and then there's everything else." When he first heard the opera at the Houston Opera's 1976 staging in honor of the bicentennial, he was "overwhelmed by the grandeur and the glory of the music the overall greatness of the piece." Capasso, founder of the Dicapo Opera Theatre in New York City, goes on to say "Opera fans go see Porgy and Bess because they know it's an amazing production. And people who are into musicals like it because, in their mind, it's almost like a Broadway show".

According to Ms Klausner, the 75th anniversary production of Porgy and Bess will tell the story in the way in which it was meant to be told. Capasso and Klausner agree with director Randolph-Wright that this production of Porgy and Bess will "build up the community". The audience will experience the passion, perseverance, originality and pride in the lives of the Catfish Row inhabitants.

The production kicks off February 18 at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert, Ohio. Complete tour schedule is attached.

The following is the schedule for the 2010 tour of Porgy & Bess (theater and ticket information TBA):

February 18: Van Wert, OH
February 19-21: Columbus, OH
February 23: Portsmouth, OH
February 24: Cincinnati, OH
February 26-27: Overland Park, KS
March 2-4: Fort Worth, TX
March 5: San Antonio, TX
March 6: Galveston, TX
March 7-8: Lafayette, LA
March 9: Oxford, MS
March 12: Jacksonville, FL
March 14: Miami, FL
March 15: Sarasota, FL
March 16: Lakeland, FL
March 17: Melbourne, FL
March 19: Columbus, GA
March 20: Asheville, NC
March 21: Greensboro, NC
March 22-23: Lexington, VA
March 25: New Brunswick, NJ
March 26: Greenvale, NY
March 27-28: Worcester, MA
April 1: Burlington, VT
April 2: Portland, ME
May 13-15: Charlotte, NC
June 4-6: Boston, MA
June 8-13: Hartford, CT

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