1950s 'Porgy and Bess' Castmember Maya Angelou Reflects On Production's Significance

The groundbreaking opera by Gershwin that brought America's racial divide to life is back on stage. Host Michel Martin speaks with author and performer Maya Angelou �" who performed in the opera decades ago �" and two actors who are performing in it now — Eric Owens and Larry Hylton.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's a heart-wrenching tale about addiction, abuse and the life-cramping effects of poverty and racism. And it's also about hope, faith, joy and the redeeming power of love. It is the sprawling American opera Porgy and Bess, and the 75th anniversary of its premiere is being observed this year with a revival at the Washington National Opera.

The music is probably as well known as any in American life, filled with classics, like the opening aria "Summertime."

(Soundbite of song, "Summertime")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Summertime and the livin's easy. Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is fine.

MARTIN: But the racial politics of the story are probably as complicated as ever, perhaps especially because there's an African-American man occupying the White House just a short distance, in fact, from where the opera is being performed. So, we thought this was a good time to celebrate and reflect on this phenomenon of American cultural life. So we've decided to call upon artists who have performed in "Porgy and Bess," then and now. In a moment we'll hear from two of the male leads currently performing in the Washington opera production.

But, first, Maya Angelou. She is, of course, one of this country's most celebrated artists, and she played the role of Ruby in a 22-nation tour of "Porgy and Bess," sponsored by the State Department back in the 1950s. And she's with us now. Welcome, my diva. Thank you for joining us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAYA ANGELOU (Artist): Thank you so much. Just imagine that was 60 years ago.

MARTIN: Do you remember how you got the role?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANGELOU: Of course I remember. I'm a writer and writers either have good memories or nothing at all.

MARTIN: Well, tell us.

Dr. ANGELOU: Well, I was a dancer who could sing a bit. And the dancer, the principle dancer was leaving the company. So when the company came to San Francisco in 1954, I was singing in a nightclub and some of the artists saw me and they asked if I could dance on the stage. So, of course, I mean, that's what I really had trained to do. And they invited me to take the role. I couldn't because I was under contract.

And then I was offered a role in a Broadway play called "House and Flowers." So I went to New York to audition for it. And while I was there, "Porgy and Bess" called me and asked, would I like to join them in Portland, Maine, and then go overseas. And I said yes. The producers of "House and Flowers" asked me, are you crazy? You're going to take a minimal role in a play going on the road when we're offering you a principle role for a Broadway play? I said, I'm going to Europe. I'm going to get a chance to see places I ordinarily would never see, I only dreamed of in the little village in Arkansas in which I grew up. Oh, no, I'm going with "Porgy and Bess." And, Ms. Martin, it was one of my best choices.

MARTIN: Will you tell us more about that? I was reading up on this and a number of the people who've written about "Porgy and Bess" have talked about the fact that, you know, black folks have had a love/hate relationship with this work. On the one hand it offers a showcase to wonderful artists such as yourself. On the other hand, you know, the story, the dialect, the representation of black life frankly just makes some people sick.

So, I wanted to ask, you know, tell me a little bit more about why this was such an important experience.

Dr. ANGELOU: Well, I was with I don't know how many 40, 50 people in the company. And they had over 120 degrees in music. There were so few places for black singers trained in European classics to work. The company could afford to get a person who had one degree from Curtis and another from Julliard just to be in the chorus.

And the singers were so great. Now, I could sing by heart, but I didn't love singing. I loved dancing. And I believe you can only become great at something you really love. And so I could sing, but every night or two, one of those trained singers would say, Maya, I'm sorry to tell you, but you flatted that C.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: You sharped that G. I didn't even know I was singing in the alphabet. I had no idea. But I learned so much about teamwork, about respect. Because there were the obvious difficulties that happen between personalities. But there was respect always.

MARTIN: You know, sometimes these cultural works, people think of them years later and are not always happy that they were in them. I had the opportunity to visit with Rita Moreno, for example, who's still kind of struggling with "West Side Story." You know, on the one hand it was a great opportunity for her, on the other hand, she still is troubled by the story, the depictions.

So I wanted to ask you, at the end of the day, do you think we are better off for "Porgy and Bess," or worse?

Ms. ANGELOU: Absolutely. You see, Ms. Martin, a poet and a pope and a prisoner and a priest, they all have to be seen in their time. You can't say in 2010 with a black man in the White House and a black woman president of one of the fine universities and so forth, you can't say how people felt in 1952. You cannot know that unless you were there.

I was very grateful to be with "Porgy and Bess," and to know that when Martha Flowers sang the "Strawberry Song," that whatever the Gershwin's had learned they had taken that directly out of the mouths of people in the South. This was exactly what was sung. So I was proud to proud to be an African-American. I knew that there was art from the poets and from the Gershwin's. I knew there was great art. I also knew that they had been inspired by great art, the great art of the African-American.

MARTIN: Maya Angelou, author, playwright, inspiration, and if we could be the first to wish you a Happy Birthday, which we understand is forthcoming.

Ms. ANGELOU: I thank you.

MARTIN: We are so delighted to have a chance to speak with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ANGELOU: Thank you very much. My pleasure to talk to you.

MARTIN: Now the two men who've been acclaimed for their roles in "Porgy and Bess," and are performing in the current production with the Washington National Opera. Eric Owens, a bass baritone is currently performing the role of Porgy and Larry Hylton a tenor, who graduated from this city's Duke Ellington School of the Arts, is currently appearing as Sporting Life, and they are here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ERIC OWENS (Actor): Hello. Thank you.

Mr. LARRY HYLTON (Actor): Thank you. Hello.

Mr. OWENS: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that both roles are so vocally demanding that there are two people in each of the roles that you are performing and you switch off, so I want to thank you for giving us this time when you really should be resting your voices.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So thank you for that.

Mr. OWENS: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: I want to pick up where we left off with Maya Angelou. This work has been beloved. It has moved audiences to tears around the world. It's offered a critical showcase to some of the finest African-American performers, but it's always been controversial. The African-American social critic Harold Cruse wrote: "Porgy and Bess" belongs in a museum. And no self-respecting African-American should want to see it or be seen in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, why did each of you want to be in it? I assume you weren't under subpoena. That...

Mr. OWENS: No, we weren't forced into this at all.

MARTIN: So, Eric, why dont you start. Why did you want this role?

Mr. OWENS: It's a wonderful and complex character and it's a great piece of theater and it's great music. And I think we have reached a time in our society where we can appreciate it for what it is and not have it necessarily have any negative connotations about our culture.

You know, I know during the civil rights movement people such as Harry Belafonte and others, they were very critical of the piece and I always say I can understand that, especially when a group of people can't be self-defining when someone else from outside the culture has made this piece of art to represent what we're all about, it can be a little disconcerting, especially with the political climate at the time and during the civil rights movement.

But, I mean Gershwin, he lived in Harlem and he grew up around, you know, black culture and he and, you know, he loved jazz, of course. And both Hayward, the writer of the novel "Porgy," actually lived in South Carolina. So they weren't making this up. They were actually observing a particular community in Charleston.

MARTIN: Okay, Larry, what about you? I remember Grace Bumbry, the opera diva, initially refused the role and she eventually did take it, and you play, you know, a drug dealer which is something that many performers of color just get a little tired of. Any qualms, ever?

Mr. HYLTON: I just think there's something to be said about ownership. For me, "Porgy and Bess" is a truly authentic storytelling. It's a story that is bred in Charleston, South Carolina, where I've had the opportunity to perform this role. And when you do it there, there's such a different sense from the audience because its completely relatable to them. And so, it's harder maybe for an outside of that area audience to grasp it at first. But for me, I've never had a problem performing in it. One, because its such a beautiful piece of music. Two, because the characters are so real and so relatable.

Everyone knows a drug dealer. Everyone knows the church lady, and everyone knows someone who has an addiction. All these characters are portrayed in the show. And so, for someone to say that no self-respecting black person would go and see this show, just let's me know that they dont have the education required to understand it.

MARTIN: Oh, well, he had plenty of education. He just had an opinion. A strong opinion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But a strong opinion. I'm just going to quote from George Gershwin quoted in the New York Times in 1935. And he writes: "Because 'Porgy and Bess' deals with negro life in America, it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera, and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, religious fervor, the dancing and irrepressible high spirits of the race."

Mr. HYLTON: Absolutely.

Mr. OWENS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OWENS: I mean all opera takes on this heightened sense of drama and, you know, and you can find characters like these in the European operas as well. I mean so, yeah, I think that's...

MARTIN: So Eric, talk to me about Porgy and what youre bringing to it. And just so that people just can experience a little bit of your deliciousness, I'll play a little bit of you.

Mr. OWENS: Oh goodness.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, many people, they know this music even if they dont know why they know this music.

Mr. OWENS: Exactly.

MARTIN: They dont even remember how they heard it but they know it.

Mr. OWENS: Right.

MARTIN: Here's you singing well, everybody knows what it is. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin")

Mr. OWENS: (Singing) I got plenty o' nuttin' and nuttin's plenty for me. I got my gal, got my song, got Hebben the whole day long.

MARTIN: So when you were preparing to be Porgy and as you are portraying him, what are you thinking about?

Mr. OWENS: Even though he's disabled, he's very strong. He's got a very strong character and his upper body strength is very strong. I mean, it's shown several times when he grabs Sporting Life and he ultimately kills Crown. So I come at it from a sense of him not being a victim, having a strength, but also there's a vulnerability there. He lives in this community where he sees other people having lives that he doesnt think he'll ever have, a family, you know, a wife, children, what have you.

And when he does finally connect with Bess, I mean it's this wonderful thing that I think he really is trying to hold on to. And also there's a softness about him as well. I mean that Bess has never experienced this sort of love, this kind of tenderness. With Crown, its just sort of come here woman, you know. And so I think they're experiencing something with each other that they never have before.

MARTIN: Larry, what about you? Ill just play a little bit of you as Sporting Life.

(Soundbite of song, "It Ain't Necessarily So")

Mr. HYLTON: (Singing) De things dat yo' liable to read in de Bible. It ain't necessarily so. Li'l David was small but oh my. Li'l David was small but oh my, he fought big Goliath who lay down and dieth. Li'l David was small but oh my. Oh.

MARTIN: Now you really get to do a lot. I mean you get to wear fabulous costumes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I mean poor Porgy gets some pants and a shirt.

Mr. OWENS: He got one.

MARTIN: And he has one outfit.

Mr. OWENS: It's a two months span in an opera.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. OWENS: So he must start to really smell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah, well Bess starts doing laundry so we hope that that got taken care of. But you get to wear a fabulous costume. You get to dance. You get to be mean and, you know, and but again, you know, for some its like, you know, youre a drug dealer, a pimp. What are you thinking about when youre bringing Sporting Life to life?

Mr. HYLTON: Well, I get to be mean, but I get to be likeable. And those are contradictions, I know, but my entire intent is to get away from Catfish Row. I'm a part of that community. It is a large community, but I've been outside of there so that I know the world is a larger place. And so, I'm always looking for the next trick or the next way to get myself away from Catfish Row.

MARTIN: Washington is a special place to be performing "Porgy and Bess." It was the last stop on a three-month U.S. tour that ended in Washington in 1936. In the initial tour, it was the last production George Gershwin was to see. It was the scene of a famous stand by, youre...

Mr. OWENS: Yes.

MARTIN: Eric is nodding here - by the leads at the time, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown because the stars refused to perform in a segregated theater.

Mr. OWENS: In a segregated theater.

Mr. HYLTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Which the National Theatre was at that time and for many many years. And even though they were threatened with career suicide at the time...

Mr. OWENS: Right.

MARTIN: ...they absolutely refused and they won.

Mr. OWENS: Yes.

MARTIN: And the National Theatre did, in fact, desegregate for the run...

Mr. HYLTON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...of "Porgy." So there is that piece. Of course, they re-segregated after that, but that's a whole other story. And now youre here with an African-American in the White House, an African-American leading - and I wonder does any of that come together for you in any kind of a interesting way? Eric? Mm-hmm.

Mr. OWENS: I think that reinforces the idea of enjoying the piece as a piece of music theater and not having to put all these, you know, racial tensions on the piece or, you know, being ashamed of doing the piece. You know, we have come a long way.

MARTIN: I want to leave where the Washington Post writer Anne Midgette ended her review. She writes: The music will endure. Whether the piece will or even should, given the limitations of its portrayal of its characters, is open to question. Kind of a tough question. What do you think? Larry, what do you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Should it?

Mr. HYLTON: I think that it is an awesome piece of not only American history but musical history, and that it's time for "Porgy and Bess" to be treated as grand opera instead of this racially motivated or somehow something to keep us from doing something. It, for me, is a springboard and I just believe that if it's treated as such from its inception, then it will become that.

MARTIN: Larry Hylton is currently appearing as Sporting Life. Eric Owens is currently appearing as Porgy in the Washington National Opera production of "Porgy and Bess." Performances continue through Saturday. They both joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. OWENS: Thank you.

Mr. HYLTON: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Summertime")

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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