The A.R.T. is fortunate enough to have the National Center for Race Amity as a Community Connections partner on The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. On Sunday, 9/25, the NCRA joined the national advocacy organization SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) in organizing a post-performance discussion on race and the legacy of Porgy and Bess. Students and professors from Brandeis University, Colby College, Suffolk University and Wheelock College all offered personal reflections on the performance.
Joyce Antler, Chair of the American Studies Program at Brandeis, offers her account of the evening:
Our group of Brandeis students and faculty was delighted to join cast members and students from other area colleges at the Sept. 25 post-performance discussion of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. The event was moderated by Jamele Adams, Associate Dean for Student Life at Brandeis, who opened the talk-back with a rousing rendition of his own poem, “BLACK.”
Jamele’s enthusiasm echoed throughout the discussion, as panelists shared their reactions, asked questions, and probed the complicated issues presented in the story and its adaptation. Almost everyone who spoke mentioned being “overwhelmed” and “blown away” by the production. Many talked about being able to identify with and care about all the characters in the ensemble. Melissa Howard, a Brandeis theater major, said that drama remained relevant to her own New York City neighborhood, where just a short time ago, a craps game resulted in a murder. And her grandmother to this day talks about “Dr. Jesus.” A student from Emerson who grew up in Tanzania felt the play had global relevance; she could easily relate to the scenes of the fishermen and their boats. Anneke Reich, a Brandeis American Studies major and frequent theatergoer, said she never witnessed as strong a theatrical community as was presented on stage.
Faith Smith, chair of Brandeis’ African and Afro-American Studies department, found herself deeply caught up in Bess' story and relationships: “For example, that striking scene of Bess dressed in red, utterly dejected, sitting at the corner of the stage, knowing that she is completely marginalized from this community. When she sees the dead man being caressed by his wife, she understands that this is also a repudiation of her own failure to be so caressed, or to have someone legitimate to caress. What this left me wondering about was Bess’ erotic energy, and the fact that it has or does not have legitimacy only in terms of her willingness to make choices amongst three men."
Ibrahim Sundiata, Professor of History and of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis, noted that the play disrupted stereotypes and tropes about African Americans. Characterizations of a kind of black femme fatale were much in the air when the story was constructed, he comments, as in the 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Scarlet Sister Mary, which depicts a conflict between the good church-going community and a wild and wayward wanton, as well as in many other films and other media of the time. The A.R.T. production took this old racial trope, humanized it and made the characterization rounded.
Students, faculty and audience members mentioned some of the play’s production values-- they appreciated the design, mentioning it was great to see shadows of the cast dancing; they loved the choreography; they appreciated “hearing” the spoken lines and understanding them.
After the talk back, Brandeis faculty and students went out and talked some more— we got into a deep discussion about the varied meanings of rape and women’s sexuality, then and now. We plan on taking the conversation back to Brandeis, where we will have a wider discussion of this production and what it means for the cultural representation of race in America.
Thank you from the A.R.T. to Joyce, William "Smitty" Smith of the NCRA, Jamele Adams, Professors Ibrahim Sundiata and Faith Smith, panelists Melissa Howard, Anneke Reich, Adan Hussain, Arafat Akbar, Margaret Elmore, and Gloria Noronha.