“Porgy and Bess” is one opera I wasn’t pressed to see. Watching blacks wearing rags and singing about better days didn’t appeal to me, but Charles Randolph-Wright changed my mind.
He’s director of the opera which opens at the Blumenthal’s Belk Theater Friday. The opera will be here through Sunday. This year marks the 75th Anniversary of “Porgy,” and Wright gives it a stylistic makeover. Wright said he was ambivalent about directing the opera because it perpetuates stereotypes about black people. His goal was to bring dignity to the characters and reclaim that part of black history by celebrating the laborers who are the backbone of black families.
“I love stories about ordinary people who in the telling of their stories they become extraordinary,” he said. “It’s a way to celebrate history especially the Carolinians.”
Wright knows all about Carolina history, such as the Gullah tradition and the fictional Catfish Row, which is based on Charleston’s Cabbage Row of the 1920s. Wright is a York native whose family has roots in Charleston. (Donita Volkwijn who plays Bess is from Durham and Philip Boykin who plays Crown is from Greenville, S.C.)
Wright said he tapped a relative in Charleston to find archival photos of the ‘20s and ‘30s era to help the opera’s designers create the costumes. He’s heard some complaints that the characters looked too rich, but Wright disagrees.
“We didn’t have the big houses. We didn’t have the money, but we took pride in our appearance and how we presented ourselves,” he said. “In every production the people are in rags, but we didn’t dress that way unless we were in the field or working. I just tried to present the people that I know; the people from whom I descended.”
Those are also the people whom I know and from whom I also descended. And they are prideful and determined, and I never tire of hearing their stories.