Mark Gresham | 09 MAR 2020
Those who attend the annual Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, will be familiar with one of its prime venues, the Dock Street Theatre, at 135 Church Street. Walk south from there on Church Street, only a few pleasant blocks in an attractive neighborhood and between St. Michael’s Alley and Trade Street you will find yourself at 89-91 Church street, a three storied row of houses locally known as “Cabbage Row” – a Revolutionary War era structure that is a well-preserved example of “row houses” consisting of a pair of multi-family dwellings, three stories tall, connected by a central arcade. Now lined with attractive private homes and specialty shops, the area wasn’t always that way.
In the early 1920s, Cabbage Row was a tenement that was home to up to ten families at a time, mostly African American families of freed slaves. Residents of these row houses would sell cabbage from their windows. One of them was Samuel Smalls, a cripple known as “Goat Man Sam” because of his goat-drawn cart. It was Cabbage Row, and Smalls in particular, that inspired American author DuBose Heyward to write his 1925 novel, Porgy. It was an inspiration that came from what was essentially his own backyard, as from 1919 to 1924 Heyward, a Charleston native, lived at 76 Church Street, only one block farther south on the other side of Trade Street – a one-minute, three-hundred foot walk away.
Although it was known as “Cabbage Row” at the time, a sign on the building reads “Catfish Row.” The name eventually was changed to “Catfish Row” to reflect the fictional location in Heyward’s novel as well as the 1935 folk-opera based upon it, George Gershwin’sPorgy & Bess, currently in the middle of a run of five performances by the Atlanta Opera at the Cobb Energy Centre. EarRelevant attended the production’s opening might this past Saturday. A second, added performance took place Sunday, and three performances remain: tonight (Tuesday, May 10), plus Friday and Saturday, May 13 and 15.
Although Sam Smalls was the original inspiration for Porgy, he was not the heroic Porgy of the novel or the opera, where he is a larger than life character. In this Atlanta Opera presentation of a production by Francesca Zambello, Porgy was portrayed on Saturday and Sunday, and again tonight, by Atlanta-based bass Morris Robinson, while in the upcoming Friday and Sunday performances the role will be sung by South African bass Musa Ngqungwana.
As Porgy, Robinson is a gentle giant who, though crippled, has considerable physical strength of he needs to use it. His warm, powerful voice, ringing out through the hall above all others as well as the orchestra, completes that characterization.
Porgy is only one of a triad of men who vie for the attention of Bess (soprano Talise Trevigne, who replaced an indisposed Kristin Lewis as of March 4, only a few days before opening night). Her violent, antagonist boyfriend, a stevedore named Crown (bass-baritone Donovan Singletary) and the social showman and drug dealer Sportin’ Life (tenor Jermaine Smith). It’s a triad of different, conflicting relationships with men for Bess, who was a more minor character in the noel but brought to headline prominence in Gershwin’s opera.
It is as much the tensions of those three different attractions which motivates the story and complicates her life. She cannot shake the sexual attraction of the violent Crown (“For when I see him he hypnotize me / When he take hold of me with his hot hand.” – Act II, scene 3, “I Loves You Porgy”) though she assures Porgy that she really wants to stay with him, if she can protect her from Crown and keep her – psychologically, she can’t seem to do it herself. Similarly with Sportin’ Life , though easy to reject him personally, he uses drugs (“happy dust” — presumably cocaine) and the lire of New York to manipulate her after Crown’s death, and in the absence of Porgy, who is in jail during part of Act III.
Although not explicit in the opera, the ability of Sportin’ Life to lure her away to New York is not simply a matter of drugs. There was a big cultural factor at the time of the novel which makes more sense: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – its intellectual, social, new African-American cultural expressions and artistic explosion, not to mention the high life that went with it all. How many women (and men) have been lured by the lights and lifestyle, and the Big City implied promise of escape from poverty? Porgy is her anchor, her safe space. Without him present, she cannot find the will to resist, perhaps because of her feelings of self-worth. While the community at large does not, it is Porgy who loves her and believes in her redemptive abilities. At the end of the opera, he take his goat cart and goes off after her.
But there are other characters who play important roles in the community’s relationships surrounding Porgy, whose interactions are key to the progress of the drama: The ill-fated Robbins (Larry D. Hylton), who is killed off by Crown early in Act I, scene 1, and his grieving but religiously pious wife, Serena (Indra Thomas), the fisherman Jake (Reginald Smith Jr.) and his wife Clara (Jacqueline Echols), the cook-shop keeper, Maria (La’Shelle Allen), among other members of the community, played by a balanced and accomplished supporting cast in an interesting, modern production. ■