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Daphne A. Daedalus ; 1 : 98— This essay reexamines the legendary opera-musical Porgy and Bess by first tending summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina its origins in the dual phenomenon of early s racialized sonic experimentation and the Southern literary conceits of DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy on which the theater production was based. Their performance labor ultimately subverts an archetype whose novel roots threatened to circumscribe their representational and artistic possibility.
We are being teased, abruptly invited to linger for no more than a moment in the billowy flutter of a flirtatious trill. That Gershwin sound is, to me, everything : the synecdoche to the secret history of Black womanhood and sonic modernity that yet still receives scant mention in Gershwin studies and in studies of cultural modernisms more broadly.
Gershwin will bear watching … he may yet bring jazz out of the kitchen. Though I begin with these imaginings conjured up by this cadre of white male artists, the renderings of and references to Black women and Black female iconicity often with, early on, nary a Black woman thinker of any sort in the room with them, the larger context of my essay would have to include the recentering of the avant-garde practices of Black women culture workers—vocalists, musicians, actors, playwrights, and arrangers—who not only managed but who summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina, for some eighty-five years now, actively adapted, translated, and rearranged an archive of concatenate cultural works: Porgy the novel written by Heyward inPorgy the play cowritten by Heyward and his dramatist wife Dorothy inand the opera that Gershwin, lyricist brother Ira, as well as Heyward would bring to the Broadway stage in What other work comes to mind that presents a series of affective and aesthetic claims about Black womanhood and manifests itself across literary, dramatic, and musical forms and has so persistently captured the cultural imagination on so vast a global scale and for such a long-lasting period of time?
Perhaps there will come a day when Toni Morrison's prodigious meditation on the afterlives of slavery will rightly assume this title.
Oh yes, Porgy and Bess. To be sure, Black folks have been wrestling with the musical-theater-meets-operatic whale since the show's debut: celebrating it as J. Which begs the question: why bother?
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And more to the point, what specifically does this text offer Black women performers who played the legendary role of Bess and transformed that character's sonic repertoire into an alluring, abstract riddle, a sociopolitical, cultural, historical, and aesthetic problem as well as an opportunity?
As adapters, translators, and arrangers in their own right, these were artists who interpolated their own interpretative vision into a work that asked both everything and nothing of them aesthetically, that required them to dwell in the violence of plantation time while drawing on the virtuosity and risk of a sonic summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina. It was their sound and aesthetic fury like that which Dilsey most surely suppressed that shook the archive that two men were building brick-by-brick in that pivotal year of She first appears as detritus in the literary landscape that DuBose Heyward dreamed up for her as he wrote his debut novel in a feverish rush, deep into that summer of Through the early night a woman had lain in the dust against the outer wall of Maria's cook-shop.
She was extremely drunk and unpleasant to look upon. Exactly when she had dropped or been dropped there, no one knew. But he had heard some talk of her among those who had entered later. One of the men had come in laughing. Casual racial misogyny is endogenous to Heyward's homegrown literary aesthetics. The latter was a figure for whom Heyward and his wife Dorothy took equal pride in citing as having been inspired by disabled local African American Charleston resident Samuel Smalls whose family would for decades seek from the Heywards—unsuccessfully, I might add—financial compensation for the use and distortion of Smalls's image.
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As is the case in the stage versions that would follow, the fleeting rehabilitation of Bess as a result of her intimacy with Porgy, the moral economy of the grace he bestows on her shifts the affective mood of the text from graphic sociological tragedy to dime-story romance. It was a site that would become the grist for Heyward's runaway literary ambitions first nurtured in the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which he cofounded in with Ohio transplant and obsessive low-country Gullah culture amateur ethnographer John Bennett.
That group staked its identity on contrasting itself with other all-white literary enclaves in the South who were galvanized to respond to H. Many of the group's members were white women, painters and poets who gravitated to Gullah tales and portraiture that they cultivated and shared among themselves. It makes sense, then, to read Heyward's circling around the mythical vice of Black womanhood in his first iteration of Porgy as a novel as a continuity with his mother's blackface womanhood and yet also a pivotal departure from her plantation hangover scenarios.
Here he continuously lingers on the idea of Bess's criminal precarity. Heyward, like his mother, like Gershwin, turns to Black womanhood and turns, in a moment of creative emergence in his career, to literary Black womanhood, illicit and socially dangerous, just as Toomer was breaking through, and just as Bessie Smith was breaking out with her first summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina from Columbia Records. Caught in the crucible between Black rural angst and urban blight, she is a figure who absorbs and manifests Heyward's multiple fantasies and aspirations, his proximity to and ersatz renderings of Toomer's oblique visions of languid and aching Black women in the early s South and the sensual declarations of empress musicians finally getting their sounds down on and for the record for the first time.
The crude cartography of Heyward's heroine is the summation of all these influences. He needs this figure as something more than leitmotif, as in fact a catalyst for the kind of dramatic experimentation that would drive his shared operatic ambition with Gershwin. All this set against the backdrop of the fictional world of rural Black squalor where tight-knit community nonetheless endures. Spectacular tragedy of operatic proportions ensues. Porgy and Bess was a production that bristled with formalistic complexity and cultural cross-pollination.
And it was a project that was polarizing from the start.
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And that's just the white folks. This is the racial mountain that we're asked to climb so often when attending a night at this particular opera.
But there has to be more to say about this old school love and theft; we can and should put more pressure on examining the relationship between the idioms and aesthetics erupting out of this line of interpretation and the nameless subjects—out in the streets, up the dark hallways, perched on the fire escapes, or maybe even placed on Gershwin's wall—who summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina interpolated into a project for which they most certainly never asked to be included. It shows his interpretation of who she is, painted in response to his encounter with her. But the stakes, I would argue, could not have been higher for Black women artists in those early years of blues recordings, when systemic structures had enabled white women like Sophie Tucker and Marion Harris to lay down tracks for the mass market in the s, in the decade before the sisters gained entrance into the studio booth.
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It is time now, then, to ask: what, if anything, has this grandly imposing hybrid musical text offered Black women artists, and what have these artists done to deform the Gershwin form? Time to ask whether there's another generative method of listening to the way that this production archives interracial encounter in sound and also creates spaces where Black women performers might improvise heroically complex, opaque, and mischievous ways of sounding out their subjectivities.
How might we listen against the grain to the Gershwin summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina Heyward archive that these artists carry with them, translate, redeploy, and revise by way of virtuosic performance strategies? How might we think differently about the politics of cultural appropriation and racial mimicry by way of their work? And it is my contention that these virtuosos in various versions of the show have innovated ways of turning the clashing tension between the sonic form of Bess and the content of her caricature into an experimental genre unto itself.
From the opera icons and musical theater actresses who have inhabited the role of the lead heroine through the years to the summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina performers who have served in supporting roles and the all-important chorus: think of everyone from The Living Is Easy novelist Dorothy West who was in the cast of Heyward's play to theater veterans Abbey Mitchell and Etta Moten, from opera legends like Leontyne Price to classical upstarts like Clamma Dale infrom ingenues like a young Maya Angelou to midcentury stars like Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll, to say nothing of the magnificent and tremendously influential Eva Jessye, who served as the opera's longtime choral director.
Yet I want to suggest that, even in her original rendering, remaining perched on the edge of the community, the edge of the play, the edge of morality, the perpetual edge of her operatic diva emotions, Bess provides a way for numerous artists to mine fraught performative spaces.
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If you are put out, you go somewhere else, if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. Both the novel as well as the opera flirt with this kind of haunting precarity as Bess's presumptive destiny. But in its theatrical iteration, I would suggest that her positionality on the fridge presents itself as something of a fugitive opportunity.
There is room, in other words, to consider Bess as out side and on the edge of the narrative as holding the potential for her to move in ways summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina the other women on Catfish Row who save for the capricious Clara who rushes into a hurricane looking for her man summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina resolutely static, committed to the joys of strawberry picking and picnics.
But in that surfeit of listening, in that absorption of voices singing lullabies, love songs and temptation songs to her, she figuratively re arranges a new musical future for the women who re cover her and provide her with performative cover. Let us not forget that long and esteemed line of performers—actors, vocalists, and multihyphenate musicians—who worried about Bess and went their own distinct, resourceful, and imaginative ways about worrying her line.
From Anne Brown, the Julliard phenom who first tackled the role and brought her to Broadway, on through to that megastorm of modern theater, Audra McDonald. She can bend pitches, add ornaments, shift the line up and down. Think, for instance, of Billie Holiday. Holiday's ironic vocals dance with Bunny Berigan's trumpet and bask in the luxurious thematic dreamscape of the song. It is her sinuous, roving version of Gershwin that as Farah Griffin reminds me clears a space for and inspires Miles's panoramic rendition two decades later.
Could it be any more fitting that Holiday would record the first pop chart version of this song? Lady Day and her sister brethren—Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, to name but only a luminous few, the ones who would follow her in answering the Bess riddle by carrying her to center of the pop world—are forever busy drawing out the human in this opera-musical repertoire, lighting out across the sonic universe, elegantly critiquing and engaging in prodigious conversations with its malevolent roots while yet still gathering up all those women out on the edge.
Norton, Robert G. Norton, Damrosch famously commissioned Concerto in F. See also Henry O. My great thanks to Brian Kane for engaging in conversations with me about this topic and pointing me in the direction of these works.
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Deems Taylor as quoted in Crawford, Summertime Hartman, Wayward Lives Jonathan Demme Burbank, Calif. Otto Preminger Culver City, Calif. Naomi Andre, Karen M. See, for instance, the all-Black casts of the original production directed by Rouben Mamoulian, that of the Broadway revival directed by Cheryl Crawford, the touring production directed by Robert Breen, and the Houston Opera production directed summertime flirting sex charleston south carolina Jack O'Brien.
Burton Fisher Boca Raton, Fla. On Black women artists as arrangers, curators, and archivists, see Daphne A. James M. Hutchisson, DuBose Heyward From this critic's standpoint, Hutchisson's meditations on race and racial politics in the life and work of Heyward are, at best, antiquated, and, at worst, profoundly problematic and oversimplified at various points in his biographical study of the author.
Hutchisson, DuBose Heyward52, On Janie Heyward's potential recording career, see Ethan J. My thanks to Ethan Kytle for his assistance with regard to this material. Toomer apparently engaged in correspondence with Rex Fuller, Heyward's successor as the secretary of the Poetry Society, and he also contacted Heyward directly about this. My great thanks to Emily Lutenski for discussions regarding Toomer and Heyward and for bringing these works to my attention. In traditional stagings, [the characters] Porgy and Bess come together amid their community's will to destruction; there is no uplift, just sweat, blood carnality, and reation.
For more on the racialized and gender politics of the early recording industry, see my Liner Notes for the Revolution.
Dorothy West appeared in the premiere production of the drama Porgy in