WASHINGTON — “Black Panther” is making history at the movies with its mostly black cast.
But a similar breakthrough happened in D.C. in 1936, when Howard University professor Todd Duncan starred in “Porgy & Bess,” the first integrated performance at National Theatre.
“It truly is an opera that was ahead of its time,” said Victoria Gau of the National Philharmonic. “The Gershwin estate insisted that the lead roles could only be performed by black singers when it’s performed in the United States. … The term ‘cultural appropriation’ didn’t exist early in the 20th century … but a sense of authenticity would be lost by having [white actors].”
This stipulation was courageous in an era of white actors in “black face,” launching a proud tradition that continues Saturday with National Philharmonic’s “Porgy & Bess” at Strathmore.
“‘Porgy & Bess’ is considered to be the greatest American folk opera,” Gau said. “It’s got drama, it’s got comedy, and it’s got wonderful music with influences by jazz and opera.”
Based on the 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward, who worked with wife Dorothy to turn it into a 1927 play, the story was famously adapted into a 1935 English-language opera by George and Ira Gershwin. It follows a disabled black man, Porgy (Kevin Deas), who falls for a former drug addict, Bess (Marlissa Hudson), in Catfish Row off the coast of South Carolina in the 1930s.
“Our Porgy is a National Philharmonic favorite, Kevin Deas, who appears frequently with us in everything from Handel to Bach to Beethoven,” Gau said. “We last did ‘Porgy & Bess’ in 2008, and Kevin was our Porgy there and he’s done this role all around the world. … Bess is Marlissa Hudson, who comes from this area and is just a wonderful singer. We’re looking forward very much to having her. She last appeared with us last spring in [Carl Orff’s] ‘Carmina Burana.'”
Deas and Hudson continue a tradition that began with Duncan, who almost turned it down.
“[Duncan] actually originally had no interest in doing it,” Gau said. “He thought that the music of Gershwin was a little below him, and [likewise] Gershwin had no original interest in him because he said, ‘I don’t want a university professor singing this music.’ They both thought that they were too good for each other, and I think they both fell in love with each other.”
This initial mistrust was confirmed by Duncan’s grandson, Charles Todd Duncan, of St. Louis.
“I have a letter my grandfather wrote to Gershwin after having been invited to New York to audition,” the grandson told WTOP. “He was not at all impressed with the idea of ‘Porgy & Bess,’ but he had not heard any of the music. When he listened to the music, he fell in love with it. When George heard him sing it, he said, ‘You are my Porgy.’ Both parties were happy.”
It was a smart decision that landed Duncan future roles, including his personal favorite part in Broadway’s “Lost in the Stars” (1949). He was also cast in the movie “Unchained” (1955), where he was the first artist to ever record the future Righteous Brothers’ hit “Unchained Melody.”
“I went to the D.C. premiere with my grandmother,” the grandson recalled. “I was 7 and one of the dialogue lines was, ‘Do you have any family?’ And the character that he played said, ‘Nope, no family.’ I remember whispering to my grandmother, ‘What about us?’ … I only remember that story because they told it again and again over the years. It became part of family lore.”
When it came time to film the movie musical “Porgy & Bess” (1959), director Otto Preminger opted instead to cast the great Sidney Poitier across Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. Even so, Duncan’s baritone legacy lived on as his Porgy songs went on to become standards.
“Some of [America’s] most well-loved numbers are from this opera,” Gau said. “First of all, most often heard is ‘Summertime.’ That has been performed by many artists over time, [along with] ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.’ Those three are the most well loved. There’s some other wonderful arias that you hear less, particularly ‘My Man’s Gone Now.'”
This Saturday, you’ll get to hear all of these standards backed by the National Philharmonic.
“That’s the neat thing about a semi-staged concert opera: You have the lead singers in front of the orchestra, but you get the orchestra right on stage,” Gau said. “We also have the National Philharmonic Chorale joined by the Duke Ellington School for the Arts’ chorus. We’re excited.”
Click here for more on “Porgy & Bess” at Strathmore. Hear our full chat with Victoria Gau below: