How a fight over segregation doomed Charleston's 1952 production of Porgy and Bess

Courier 'staff correspondent' called opera's critics 'enemy propagandists'

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Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sad to report that every single performance of "Porgy and Bess" is sold out. That's right, if you don't already have tickets to Spoleto 2016's signature event, you're out of luck. After all, this performance of "Porgy" is sure to be a showstopper, not just because of George Gershwin's killer score, Charleston's Catfish Row connection, and Jonathan Green's contributions to both set and costume designs. It'll also mark the third time "Porgy and Bess" has been performed at the Gaillard, first in 1970 and later in 1985.

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However, it's the 1970 performance that stands out, at least for one simple reason: it was the first integrated Gaillard performance. I know, shocking and embarrassing and shameful. Over 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and six years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Charleston's most celebrated hall finally opened its doors to blacks and whites at the same time.

Even more surprising, this wasn't the first time that a Charleston organization set out to hold a performance of "Porgy and Bess" with both races in attendance. The year was 1952, and what began as a effort celebrating the Holy City's ties to the Gershwin and Dubose Heyward classic turned into a bitter fight between Chucktown's paternalistic white segregationists and black activists. 

The performance was the brainchild of Robert N. S. Whitelaw of the Carolina Art Association, and it was championed by Thomas Warning, editor the editor of the News and Courier, one of the two papers that later merged to become The Post and Courier.

According Ellen Noonan's "The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess," a previous attempt to stage the all-black, all-local cast 'Porgy' in Charleston failed because of white opposition, but in the following years, the white community embraced the production, in part because of the tireless efforts of Heyward's wife Dorothy and her friend Waring to solidify Charleston's connection to the internationally renowned folk opera. 

However, even in the early planning stages of the 1952 production there was a sign that this staging was not meant to be. The Dock Street Theatre was desperately in a need of a financial hit, so they gladly signed on to Whitelaw's plan, but while they would produce the play, they wouldn't show it in the historic theater. Instead they looked elsewhere. 

After the Charleston County School District refused to stage the play because, "the school attorney advised the board not to accept a production with negroes at this time," "The Strange Career" notes, Whitelaw and company found a site that would work, County Hall — today's Palace Apartments on Upper King. But there was one hitch: the audience had to be segregated. 

While some African-American leaders backed the production — in part because they were used to getting separate-but-equal breadcrumbs from the paternalistic white establishment — others were not. Enter Arthur J. Clement, president of the Charleston NAACP.

For Clement, the audience could not be segregated. Whites and blacks had to be able to sit side by side. The Dock Street Theatre felt otherwise and canceled the production. 

Noonan writes:

Charleston's African-American community appeared to be divided. On one side were the "Porgy" cast and the community leaders who had endorsed Whitelaw's project from the beginning. They were willing to continue the longtime Charleston tradition of black elites cooperating with their more powerful white counterparts to inch forward toward racial justice. In a statement published in the News and Courier, 14 cast members declared, "we eagerly accepted the opportunity of participating in ["Porgy"], both from the point of artistic expression as well as from the means of a wonderful potential for good human relations ..."

The cancellation distressed them: "We deplore segregation and discrimination, yet we feel that to use the production of 'Porgy' as a means of combating it is unfair and unsportsmanlike, with little sense of moral responsibility for the inconvenience caused the producers and the cast, none of whom was approached or consulted during any of the controversy by the persons opposing the production."

The News and Courier's Waring was similarly outraged, but instead of directing his ire at the Dock Street Theatre, the newspaper editorial blamed black leaders like Clement. It wasn't surprising. In a previous defense of "Porgy," a, um, "Staff Correspondent" called the folk opera's detractors as "race conscious critics" and "enemy propagandists." Noonan notes:

For Waring, the "Porgy" production was a benefit to Charleston only if it could proceed on white-paternalistic terms. As he wrote in a News and Courier editorial, "In demanding that the audience be racially mingled, in disregard of South Carolina laws and customs, these Negroes in our opinion have not helped to promote good race relations. If upsetting these customs is the only terms on which they will participate, it is better that the project be abandoned." By not honoring Charleston's "laws and customs," the protestors had made local whites "less disposed, we fear, to make other attempts at public cooperation. Thus another wedge driven between the races." Waring also used the cancellation as an opportunity to editorialize against the NAACP, observing that the cast members' disappointment at the show's cancellation was evidence of his doubts that "the militant spokesmen for the race, notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, truly reflects the views of the rank and file," including on "many issues that arise, notably the separation of races in public schools."



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