By Sheila Johnson
When I was first contacted by the Metropolitan Opera Company about serving as chairwoman of its opening night gala for the current revival of Porgy and Bess, I will admit to being both intrigued and more than a trifle ignorant.
Intrigued because, as a classically trained violinist, something about the power of opera has always fascinated me. Ignorant because, even as an African American woman, I knew only surface details about George Gershwin’s 1935 “folk opera” about the men and women of Catfish Row, an all-black neighborhood on the fringes of Old Charleston.
So before I agreed to serve, and before I assumed the role as the face of the woman who’d be inviting the world to spend an evening with the great Gershwin and his one and only opera, I told Met executive director Peter Gelb that I first wanted to do some due diligence on the show itself.
What I found opened my mind in so many ways. I learned, for example, that when it was first staged, Porgy and Bess was not a commercial success at all. And I learned too that the opera was originally based on a novel called Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward, whose family had once been considered “landed elite” in Old Charleston.
But I also learned that, for all it may now be seen an ambitious (yet flawed) classic of 20th Century American theatre, in its day Porgy and Bess was rife with controversy.
African Americans considered DuBose’s story patronizing and full of two-dimensional caricatures that did little more than stoke the flames and support many long-held stereotypes about African American attributes, like laziness, alcoholism and ignorance.
Others blacks considered it absurd, if not downright appalling that, between George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, the opera’s book and music were written by two white Jews from New York and a rich white Southerner from the cradle of American slavery.
Yet, despite all that, and despite the fact that the show remains to this day shrouded in controversy, I agreed to chair the gala and the to champion the Met’s revival.
Why? Because even eight decades ago, Porgy and Bess did something to America that the most important art always does to the society that creates it. It held a mirror to us and forced us to talk about what we found staring back. It forced us, in other words, to talk about race and discuss our relationship with it – and not just in the context of the opera’s story, but in the context of the production itself.
Because for all that certain African Americans may have decried its depiction of its central characters, the simple fact was Porgy and Bess – fueled by the insistence of Gershwin and Heyward – was the first Broadway show in history to feature an entirely black ensemble. And what’s more, when the show went on the road, its producers insisted on playing only opera houses and staying only at hotels that were racially integrated.
The fallout, of course, was tremendous. But Porgy and Bess took race as an issue and pulled it out of the back alleys, the pool halls and the cat houses of the big city, and placed it front and center, where the entire country – black and white – had to deal with it.
That’s why I agreed to serve as the Metropolitan Opera Company’s honorary chair of its gala to kick off the long-awaited revival of Porgy and Bess. And that’s why I took such an active role in working on every detail of the look and feel of that gala.
Because these are tribal times in which we live, my friends, and ours is a country now being torn apart by a level of fear, ignorance and racial hatred that, frankly, we haven’t experienced since the very first blast of the very first Civil War cannon.
Please understand, I am not simply a black woman. I am not simply the operator of a luxury hotel in downtown Charleston; a city on whose streets many spirits still roam unreconciled. I am not just one more descendant of a people once hunted and captured like animals, bound by chains, jammed into the hulls of ships, and then transported a half a world away, only to be sold on the open market like so much beef.
I’m more than those things. Much more, in fact. I’m an American. And I deeply believe that before this country of ours can fix its deep-rooted problems with race, we first have to be able to talk about them.
And, who knows? Maybe – just maybe – a bold, daring, ambitious and otherwise flawed opera from almost a century ago, will compel us, at long last, to do just that.