Thursday, May 12, 2016


            Jonathan Green says that costume designer Annie Simon understands his vision for Porgy and Bess “in a glorifying way.”  But it took awhile.  After all, he’s using the opera to change a paradigm that has plagued the African American community incessantly.  When Spoleto Festival director Nigel Redden approached Jonathan about creating the opera’s visual design and costumes, he agreed only if he could do it from the perspective of free Africans.  In the rural Gullah community of Garden’s Corner, S.C. where he grew up, extended families live close to the land.  Colorful traditions, crafts, and stories are passed down.  Fishing and farming provide a shared prosperity.  Contrarily, the image of African Americans in the wider culture is much less flattering.  He points to our general population’s impression of Africa: wild animals and abject poverty.  An entire continent summed up bleakly, simplistically, ignorantly.  The image of “enslaved derelicts, I don’t know anything about that culture and I never saw it.  I know my culture.”  So Jonathan insisted that his design concept would be Africans coming to the United States not as slaves, but as immigrants like anyone else.  He wanted to “shift the paradigm to a modern day people, to give them back their culture, not built on slavery.”
            Annie Simon is a Brooklyn based costume designer who received her MFA in Design for Film and Theater in 2010 from NYU.  She’s designed for dozens of feature films, music videos, commercials, theater productions and dance performances.  The opera’s director David Herskovits, with whom she’d worked previously, brought her to the project.  Jonathan, she says with the utmost admiration, was “hired to bless us with his image and creativity.” Her goal was to realize his vision of combining traditional African clothing and 1930’s dress. It required “a ton of research” but blending genres was not new to her. She won the Kennedy Center’s Outstanding Costume Design Award for Bartholomew Fair which melded 1600’s English clothing styles with punk rock. 
She began sketches for each of the 72 costumes, head wraps and accessories months ago.  Jonathan’s paintings inspired her:  women standing in the wind with billowing patterned dresses, puffy shoulders and high waists.  She worked until she could “really feel his paintings,” and then sent the sketches to Jonathan for approval.  When he gave positive feedback, she “felt fantastic”. 
          Next she supervised turning the costumes from sketches to clothing for the 55 actors and singers in the show.  “I never buy fabric on-line because you can’t touch it and the colors are different,” she says.  So she shops inHarlem where African fabrics are plentiful and there’s “a little man with a sewing machine,” who can whip up prototypes.  Three shops in Harlem worked non-stop to complete the job.  Once the costumes were sewn they were shipped to Charleston and fitted by the expert seamstresses in the Spoleto costume shop.  Finally she met with the actors to personalize the head wraps, wigs and accessories for each role.  It’s a labor intensive process that lasts until the opera’s premier on May 27. 
            Pushing the envelope this way is not new to the opera.  It has been an agent for social change throughout its history.  Musically, Gershwin had to defend this “folk opera” that brought “the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits” of African Americans to the operatic stage.  “I have created a new form…quite naturally out of the material.”  Outraged critics called Gershwin a Tin-Pan Alley hack and an affront to Wagner and Mozart. Socially, turmoil and controversy have surrounded it too.  Gershwin didn’t debut it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1930 because they insisted on actors in black-face. Instead, it premiered five years later where an integrated audience was the first of many it prompted.  Despite 124 Broadway performances and a national tour it was a financial and critical failure.  It has endured a love/hate relationship with Black critics. Journalist William Warfield wrote “In 1952 the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me.”  But overseas it’s been a sensation. La Scala had never hosted a cast of African Americans before 1955 when Maya Angelou played Ruby: “Time and again, the audience came to their feet, yelling and applauding.  We had performedPorgy and Bess as never before …”   In Charleston’s own Dock Street Theater, a plan to integrate the audience for the first time in 1954 was met with such backlash that the performances were cancelled.  It wasn’t until 1970 that it was performed to an integrated audience in Charleston.  Critic Rodney Milnes wrote, “If ever a twentieth century opera aspires to make the world a better place…it is Porgy and Bess.”  So in the hands of Jonathan Green and Annie Simon it is again doing what the arts do so well:  entertain, inform and create change.

If You Go:
Spoleto general information:  Tickets to the live performances of Porgy and Bess are sold out but free simulcasts will be broadcast On Mon. May 30 at 7:30 p.m., in Marion Square and Tues. May 31 at 7:30 p.m. at West Ashley High School.