A few years ago the SF Opera hosted a traveling minstrel, Porgy and Bess. Now, my woman has been dragging me to the opera for 12 years, back when I was healthy enough to hold onto the railing at SRO. We've never seen many folks, but she loves it nonetheless.
For Gershwin we got sit down tickets and swam in the sea of black to brown. I've never seen a haughtier sea, and we certainly were as unwelcomed in it as we are in the pink sea we normally swim in. Now—we didn't read the synopsis. Nina loves Porgy so we figured we'd love Porgy too.
In the beginning, there is Summertime.
As the show went on I kept thinking we gotta get out of here. This reminds me of the book someone gave a friend of mine for their child, the one where an Indian chops himself into bits, and can't even feel it. Needless to say the book went to Eshu.
As I sat I could not believe all these folks paid money to sit here and watch this. I can't believe we sat among them.
I can't accept this. I can't embrace the language as mine. I refuse the narrative that claims that we (women, coloreds, poor people) when given the choice choose violence, poverty and isolation.
I was telling this to my cousin and she said, "you won't even give us, the fish is jumpin and the cottin is high."
I shot her back an uncompromising no. I won't buy it, in another ticket, or another moment. Especially if the fish is jumpin. To bless this baby, our most precious of beings, those who come to us with the sole responsibility to grow into an elder, those who come to watch us and take from us those lessons on how to make choices. What does this blessing do, but fatten the goat for the slaughter. I won't offer myself to that. I won't patronize artists and businesses that do.
I believe: "The ethical imperative for linguistic and all other social behavior: one should address others with a presumption that they are capable of responding meaningfully, responsibly, and above all, unexpectedly." (Gary Saul Morson in Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work)
Nothing in this minstrel show is unexpected. It's a dime store novel backed by money and power.
Give me Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh's Porgy, the one Nina sings at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, on the evening of June 30:
"I got my man now. I got Porgy. My baby understands now. I got my Porgy. I'm through with byways. His way is my way. Forevermore.
Lord when I feel his arms around me. Knowing he can't go on without me. I wants to beg for a chance to camp at his door.
Say he's not much for looking. Say he's lazy and no count as he can be. He's got the kind of love for me.
So I'm changing my style, my way of living. Glad I've stopped taking and started giving. I got my man. Got my Porgy. Now."
Give me Gertrude and Virgil. Even Gershwin thought their opera was "refreshing as a new dessert." He was so influenced by it (Four Saints) he used the same director Thomson (Virgil) used in his production of Porgy and Bess, an entire year later. An entire year later.
In my own ignorance I had always believed (and heard) that Porgy and Bess was the first NY opera with an all black cast; I know Duke lamented his own failure in that arena, but Gertrude and Virgil premiered their "perfect masterpiece" a year earlier. Few people have even heard of it (Four Saints).
Their choice of material, four saints and a landscape.
Thomson has said that he and Gertrude envisioned saints as "a parallel to the life we were leading, in which consecrated artists were practicing their art. . .needing to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity, of channeling their skills without loss of inspiration."
Artists' choice: truth and spontaneity. The lives of artists: the relationship between land and spirit.
"Art that has religious reverence carries with it harshness and discipline; the anarchic and the arbitrarily subjective are sometimes the enemy that destroys art from within. When I say religious attitude, I mean the belief that inside every person, landscape, and still life, there is hidden a noble beauty." (Aharon Appelfeld in A Table for One)
This winter I watched The Secrets. That film left me with same sickening feeling Gershwin did. The writer and director forced the characters into an ending I could not believe. I still don't believe it, and I still can't shake the violation I felt as I watched this film, twice, trying to make myself accept the end he offered me. Was it me or was it the movie.
"I have always, deeply, violently, detested those who look for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality." (Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed)
I know Naomi and Michal--I don't believe their double white wedding, to men and to healing through self sacrifice.
"An event as we imagine it hasn't much to do with the same event as it is when it happens."
I know when I am being manipulated. I hate it. Even when I can't form words, the feeling is impossible to ignore, it chokes me. I am smothered inside it. The lie, the lack of spontaneity, the failure "to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity, of channeling their skills without loss of inspiration."
This is the summer of Stein, devoted to artists and patrons, saints and landscapes, choices and vision.