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    Jan 31

    Written by: adawson 1/31/2014 4:18 PM 

     

     12 Years A Slave        

          12 Years a Slave is known as the best historical document of slavery in the deep south of Louisianna on the Red River. It was written by Soloman Northup, a man who was born free and taken from his wife and three children to be sold into slavery. This story tells of the hardships he endured during his time as a slave until his rescue in 1853. The book was published the same year he was freed, and was recently made into a movie by Steve McQueen in 2013. A first edition copy of the book will be available for viewing  at the Cleveland Public Main Library in Spring 2014.

    Porgy and Bess

    Set in the poor fishing village of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, Porgy and Bess, a Gershwin composed and award winning American folk opera, has accumulated much criticism since its first performance in New York, 1935. It is a tragic story of a beautiful African American woman, Bess, who suffers from addictions and an abusive relationship, and a crippled man, Porgy, and their trials when they discover they have formed an unlikely relationship with one another.

             Porgy and Bess premiered at the Alvin Theater in New York on October 10, 1935, and was a huge success with applause and cheering that lasted an hour after it ended. The opera was very popular throughout its 124 performances between late 1935 and early 1936 in New York, unlike its predecessor Porgy that was shown in 1927 for 214 showings.

            Porgy was first written as a novel by DuBose Heyward, and later written as a play by Dubose and his wife Dorothy. Heyward was a folklorist, and so Porgy was written as a folk tale. In the introduction to the play version of Porgy, Heyward wrote that he had a “profound respect for the authentic folklore” (Allen 246). It was Heyward’s love of folklore that led him to include prayers, songs, and a dialect that would help portray this authentic feeling of a folk tale. Heyward also pushed to have an all African American cast for Porgy because of his “belief that African Americans were heirs of a primitive and emotionally potent folk culture” (Allen247). 

             The idea for the character of Porgy actually came from an article Heyward read in Charleston News and Courier about a crippled beggar named Samuel Smalls, often called Goat Cart Sam, because of the goat and cart he always had with him. Smalls was arrested for trying to shoot a woman, but through this man, Heyward  created his character Porgy. When the novel was published in September 1925, it had mixed reviews most of which were positive. Mary White Ovington of Amsterdam News said the novel was a “magnificent story,” that presented a life close to that of an African American of that time (Allen 246). Another critic, W.E.B. Dubose, said that Heyward did well with showing a “sympathetic treatment of Charleston’s black folk, but chastised him for ignoring the city’s middle class. Other critics, like Theophilus Lewis, took to more of a negative critique of Porgy, saying that it Heyward as a white man was incapable of truly interpreting the life of an African American (Allen 246).

                In 1926, American composer George Gershwin looked through Porgy, and immediately knew that he wanted to turn the story of Cat Fish Row into a musical. Gershwin learned as much as he could about the African American culture by attending various events, and concerts in African American communities. Along with his desire for authenticity with the characters, Gershwin also decided that he wanted Porgy and Bess to have a certain sound as well. He said:

    Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. It’s people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began to work on the music I decided against the use of origional folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folk songs. But they are still folk music- and therefore, being an operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera (Allen 250).

                Porgy and Bess was a huge success when it was first performed, and continues to be to this day. It is playing here in Cleveland at Playhouse Square February 4- 16, 2014.

    Further Reading

    Carolina Chansons Legends of the Low Country

    The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: A 75th Anniversary Celebration

    The Life and times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of An American Classic 

    The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera 

    12 Years A Slave: A True Story of Betrayal, Kidnap and Slavery 

    Works Cited

    Allen, Ray. "An American Folk Opera? Triangulating Folkness, Blackness, and Americaness in Gershwin and Heywards's Porgy and Bess." Journal of American Folklore117.465 (2004): 243-61. Web.

    Alpert, Hollis. The Life and times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic. New York: Knopf, 1990. Print.

    Hamilton, Kendra. "Goat Cart Sam A.k.a. Porgy, an Icon of a Sanitized South." Southern Cultures 5.3 (1999): 31-53. Print.

     Hannaford, Alex. "12 Years a Slave: The Sad Song of Solomon Northup." N.p., n.d. Web.

    Noonan, Ellen. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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