Black Opera

I've been on a musical kick as of late. So far I've watched the film version of the Broadway hit Rent, and while I saw it at the theater I've watched the Dream Girls movie several dozen times, in succession. I even accessed to the DVD's set up options and changed it to French. The dubbing job wasn't as amateur as I thought it'd be. Yes, I watched Dream Girls in French. I so love the movie and its soundtrack. I do what I must to fight the ravages of boredom, in any event. Next up, perhaps I'll rent the original incarnation of John Water's Hairspray (starring Rikki Lake), Cry Baby, and/or Sparkle. In the meantime, I'm slowly working my way through the George Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess. Adapted from the book Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward. As I watched the opera, it suddenly begin to strike me how significant it and the novel really are. DuBose, who is white and a descendant of Thomas Heyward, Jr., wrote Porgy using all black characters living in a fictitious town called Catfish Row. He penned the novel sans the flippant and offensive nature of Thomas F. Dixon, Jr's The Clansman. Which would later be adapted into the controversial film Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. Heyward found inspiration for Porgy, whilst studying the ways in which African Americans lived in Charleston, South Carolina. While some people (understandably) considered the book, the Broadway hit, and the opera a perpetuation of racial stereotypes, it was still unheard of to read literature or watch portrayals (written or directed by White people) of Blacks in such a sympathetic way, during this time. True to the book, the Broadway show, and Gershwin's opera features an all Black cast- (which Gershwin was adamant about, even though some theater companies and opera houses here and abroad used all White casts due to the political (and racist) climate of that time)- and Gullah dialect. For this reason alone, Porgy and Bess is relevant. It wasn't even considered a legitimate opera, until 1976... which isn't that long ago.
The music is also a good enough reason to consider this a groundbreaking artistic endeavor for the time. Summertime (one of my favorite songs!), I Loves You Porgy, and It Ain't Necessarily So has been covered by many jazz greats including Billie Holiday (who does my favorite version of Summertime), Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald
I guess the whole point in my composing this entry, is to strongly suggest Porgy and Bess as something to take time out and watch or listen to. While I appreciate the effort, I would take a pass on the movie version and soundtrack, and stick to Gershwin's versions of both. The opera is on DVD and is about 3 hours long. It is also reminiscent of one of my favorite musical films, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). An Afro-Brazilian tale based on the Greek tragedy, Orpheus. Orfeu Negro, made by French director Marcel Camus and which features an incredible and infectious soundtrack (which I own on CD), was also considered to be controversial. Critics felt that its depiction of Afro-Brazilians, living in the favelas of Rio as happy go lucky, was buffoonish and that it depicted racial stereotypes about people living in the favelas. While I commiserate with some of that film's naysayers, I do think the beauty of the love story and the lush backdrop of Rio and Carnaval helps contribute to the film's beauty. I would suggest that classic as well.

4 comments

  1. You know Coffee, I have seen neither of these films although, the alternative video store I patronize has given Black Opherus classic status.
    How would you compare black opherus to City of Gods. I know that Porgy and Bess is an important part of African-American cultural history so I think I will finally sit down to watch it.
    How do you feel about hip-hop stars such as Puffy and Usher acting on Broadway.

    One more thing, did you hear about our dear Jane and Vibe Vixen magazines(RIP).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Chic Noir. The next time you happen by your alternative video store, I strongly recommend that you rent Black Orpheus. I've seen that film countless times and am still not tired of it. The music and the spirit of Carnaval is infectious and jumps through the screen. Black Orpheus has almost nothing to do with Cidade de Deus (City of God). The only thing similarities the two movies share, is that the story takes place in the favelas, and most of the characters are Afro-Brazilian. Orfeu Negro is based on the Greek tragedy Orpheus and is a love story set to music.
    City of God is of course, unflinching and is based on a true story. It's gritty and shows the violence that people (young people in particular) living in the favelas endure.

    As far as hip hop stars acting on Broadway, Puffy and Usher in particular... I think it's great and productive on their part, that they're showing the span of their talent by acting in live theater Although I'm not really a fan of either man's music, I think they've proven they're not one dimensional. Broadway is not an easy feat to conquer, and they did it successfully.

    P.S. I read about Jane and didn't realize that Vibe and Vixen were also meeting an untimely demise. That's unfortunate, because I really enjoyed reading Jane Mag. ;-(

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was fortunate to catch Porgy and Bess done by the Washington Opera last year. And, because part of me is a Type-A nerd, I read the original play first, so I would have some idea of what the play was about.

    I thought it was great! Luckily, that performance was done by the "A" cast, and they were really, really good. I too highly recommend the play.

    L

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm sorry, I meant that only VibeVixen is being cancled. Although, as bad as Vibe is these days, I would not mind if they chose to pull the pull on it also.

    ReplyDelete