Next winter, the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., will stage a new version of the time-honored Gershwin classic "Porgy and Bess" written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Diane Paulus. A whole bunch of folks aren't all that pleased about it, including Stephen Sondheim, who sent a letter to The New York Times last week expressing his serious concerns about messing with the negro folk-opera first performed in 1935.
Coincidentally, another play, "Chasing Heaven," currently in rotation at The New York International Fringe Festival, hits some "Porgy and Bess" nerves, too. It follows the character Kinshasha Morton, a black playwright tasked with updating the (fictional) Joshua Gerwitz classic "Chasin' Hebbin'." We caught up with "Chasing Heaven" playwright and director Leah Maddrie to discuss issues of authenticity and the importance of pushing beyond racial stereotypes in art and writing.
Is "Chasing Heaven" meant to represent "Porgy and Bess"?
"Chasing Heaven" is actually a stand-in for so many properties that purport to show "authentic Negro life" through a (white) lens. There were so many works in the so-called Golden Age of American entertainment that portrayed black folks as poor or as simpletons or both -- "Porgy and Bess," "Cabin in the Sky," "The Green Pastures" -- alongside numerous characters in otherwise all-white movies who were always the comic maids or servants. The actors who tried to give some depth and subversiveness to these roles included Butterfly McQueen, Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel -- all of whom displayed a genius that, because of the culturally freighted roles they had to take, goes nearly unacknowledged today.
Is there any evidence that "Porgy and Bess" was partially ghostwritten by a black woman writer, as suggested with "Chasin' Hebbin'" in your play?
That subplot is more about paying homage to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance than about any truth or rumor about the authorship of "Porgy and Bess." In my play, the character Lolly Kibbins -- the once-lauded Harlem Renaissance writer who is now begging to work on "Chasing Heaven" as a silent assistant so she can survive -- serves a couple of purposes. It points out that black people working on dialect pieces did not get the exposure, riches or fame that white writers did, and it should make the audience think about why the fortunes of artists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurston, Clarence Muse and George Gershwin were so different. Because, as I say in the play, an artist like Zora was writing essentially the same world as depicted in a work like "Porgy" but from a more empowered, "Negro-centric" point of view.
Have you ever seen "Porgy and Bess"? How do you feel about it?
I saw "Porgy and Bess" because I had been predisposed to not like it because of its legendary portrayals of a small group of fictional black characters, and I felt I could not hate something I had not seen. The only way I can explain to non-African Americans the visceral dislike by many (but not all) blacks of works like "Porgy and Bess" is to say, "What if whites were the oppressed, enslaved group, and black people had the most control over the most widely distributed works of popular entertainment and culture, and the only critically acclaimed pieces you saw about white people were various versions of 'The Beverly Hillbillies' or 'Tobacco Road'?"
Authenticity, which I read was what the play was called in an earlier form, is tricky to convey in performance, theater, film ("The Help" comes to mind). Why do you think we black folks feel such ownership over the depiction of our history?
Well, I think it does cause problems, and there is not necessarily one right answer, which is why I am so hard on the well-meaning but somewhat hypocritical Afro-centric black characters in the play. When I was growing up, I fought black kids on the playground because they would claim that my siblings and I were -- for whatever reason suited them -- not "black" enough. And at the same time they made fun of my natural hair, and hardly knew anything about the diversity and achievement within our culture, as I discovered when I asked, in the middle of a particularly irritating taunting session about our so-called lack of racial pride, "Who was Mary McLeod Bethune? Who was Charles Drew?" and they had no answers.
Let's face it: Many of us who create art come from comfortable backgrounds and have personal lives that are very, very intertwined with people of a variety of heritages, cultures and ethnicities. So the concept of authenticity is, as you say, a tricky one that is nearly impossible to define or enforce. But the process of calling attention to the paucity of three-dimensional, varied portrayals of members of underrepresented groups in works of art and popular entertainment, which is directly related to the lack of diversity in leadership, green-lighting, curatorial positions behind the scenes in the arts, must continue.
You seem comfortable with provocation. What has that cost you in your career thus far?
I'm just beginning my career, at least as a writer. A few commentators had problems with the play, but others have gotten every point I was trying to make and have understood the well-researched history behind the work. The vast difference in responses has made me realize that when you are not presenting cuddly black characters who are deferential to whites, you invite the wrath of the wannabe taste-makers. Especially if the black characters don’t sing gospel or offer life-affirming homilies to confused middle-class white characters. As an artist and as a person, you have to have thick skin and continue along your path unbowed. My point-of-view has probably cost me the universal embrace I might have had if I'd written a play with more stereotypical black characters: poor, undereducated, seemingly powerless victims. But I purposely wrote a play that challenged those all-too familiar, comforting types. The only provocation I see in the play is that as an educated black woman, I have written a play for my tastes -- and that disturbs some folks.
How do you feel about the response to the play overall?
This is my first full-length play, and I have been quite surprised at the range of reactions. I have always seen it as a comedy with bite, heavily influenced by the style of George Bernard Shaw -- a play about ideas. Of course, this is risky to present at a time when even the Shaw Festival in Canada is apparently doing less Shaw because today’s audiences have shorter attention spans and want more obvious, flashier entertainment and less demand for thought and attention. There are so many more works out there with provocation of a much more intense or juvenile origin that I feel this play deserves a hearing.
Who are some of your mentors/role models in the theater world?
Some of the notable influences include my parents, who raised me with pride in myself and with inner strength that allowed me and my siblings not to follow the crowd and to follow our dreams instead. One of the most amazing people I worked with when I was an actor -- I was an actor for about a decade -- was Roscoe Lee Browne. He consistently tried to choose roles that were against the grain and that challenged expectations. I also think about my grandmother, Emma Coleman, who was a maid and a practical nurse, among other things, and who acted when she could at Karamu House in Cleveland, one of the country's first "non-traditional casting" performing arts centers. I am aware of the legacies of numerous people and groups -- the theatre companies that thrived in Harlem during the 20s through the 50s and performing arts pioneers like Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham and Ira Aldridge.
What are your three favorite plays?
"Our Town," "St. Joan of the Stockyards," "All's Well That Ends Well."
What are you working on next?
I'm moving forward.