For Jonathan Green, it is not simply a matter of the interplay of light and shadow, of color, texture or the wizardry of stagecraft. No, Porgy and Bess is about history, about restoring to this fabled opera a more accurate sense of its West African roots.
One can scarcely imagine an artist more suited to the task of designing costumes and sets for the Spoleto Festival revival of this classic collaboration between brothers George and Ira Gershwin and husband and wife DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. Or anyone more capable of recovering the creative flair of a culture too often obscured.
When Porgy and Bess opens its six-performance run on May 27 at the new Gaillard Center, Green’s work will represent the culmination of three years of preparation as well as a new flowering of historical awareness.
“I don’t know of any opera visual form that has been so stripped of all of its nutrients,” says Green, one of America’s most renowned painters. “And as an artist I have a duty to restore its reality. So many of the images people produce of black people bear no relation to my experience, and I’ve been around for a while. This opera will be dramatically different.
“Porgy and Bess stretches directly to West Africa. My take on it embodies a rich cultural and artistic heritage brought here in an enslaved environment, one that merged into a new culture together with European and Native American traditions.”
The opera was inspired both by DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, “Porgy,” and the 1927 play by Heyward and his playwright wife, Dorothy, which told the tale of a crippled street beggar in the black tenements of Charleston in the 1920s. The operatic version debuted in 1935. It has endured so long and remained so captivating for good reasons, Green says.
“It’s the first American opera, which culturally is tremendously important. And it’s an opera coming from a place, Charleston, where the history was so enormous. There is no place in the country where you could have an opera of such magnificence and significance as South Carolina.”
Clearly, Green feels a special affinity for and responsibility toward this opera. He says that by creating his designs he is continuing to connect with his ancestors. Generations of Green’s family have lived in the Lowcountry, and though he has lived in various parts of the United States, the stories he’s been told since childhood ground him here.
He doubts he could have done the work on this opera in quite the same way when he was younger. Today, Green has more depth of understanding about place, setting, time and the visual elements.
“I feel that now, perhaps, I can achieve something that would be difficult for someone else to do. There has not been a production of Porgy and Bess like this. The design of costumes and sets is icing on the cake, but it can transform how you think about, look at and remember something,” he says. “My focus is bringing a part of West African culture into a larger culture that has negated it in the past. I feel a responsibility to children, especially.”
The production also marks the return to Spoleto of director David Herskovits, whose 1998 production of the Heywards’ Mamba’s Daughters captured an OBIE award and triumphed at the 1999 Spoleto Festival.
Augmenting the opera will be several satellite offerings, including a Catfish Row-inspired Porgy and Bess walking tour and events at the Charleston Museum and the College of Charleston Library. The festival also is partnering with Engaging Creative Minds, the Ravinia Festival’s One Score, One Chicago music-education program, and local artists to introduce a learning program based on the opera for eighth graders in the Tri-County area.