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A new production of Charleston's Porgy and Bess gets accused of whitewashing

It ain't necessarily so

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Last week, controversy arose in the opera world, one involving a work that is near and dear to the hearts of Charlestonians, Porgy and Bess.

See, the Hungarian State Opera decided to take the much celebrated Gershwin Brothers' composition and set it inside a European refugee camp instead of the fictional Charleston housing complex Catfish Row. In the process, they've reimagined the production's black characters as Middle Eastern immigrants fleeing war-torn nations.

It's a move that's timely and, if done right, powerful. But it's not actually all that novel.

For years directors and producers, both on the stage and screen, have chosen to take classic works and give them out-of-left-field contemporary spins.

Sometimes the experiment works — see Baz Luhman's Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ian McKellen's performance as and Adolf Hitler-inspired Richard III in the film of the same name.

Sometimes, it doesn't — see, Ethan Hawke as a corporate trust-fund baby Hamlet and last summer's silly Shakespeare in the Park staging of Julius Caesar, in which the titular military hero and would-be dictator bears a striking resemblance to our boorish, Twitter tantrum president, Donald J. Trump.

In case you've forgotten, the latter led to an outrage feedback loop that consumed the right-wing, as both party leaders and their media masters failed to realize they had been played to hype a contextually meaningless bit of carnival trickery.

Unlike McKellen's Richard III where the fascist trappings inform Richard's rise to power and his paranoia, the connection between Shakespeare in the Park's Trump stunt and the Bard's play was nearly nonexistent. Caesar could have easily been Hello Kitty and the performance would have had the same gravitas.

Which is why this misstep illustrates an important point: if a radical makeover is to be employed, it must have the same beating heart as the source text. The Hungarian State Opera's staging of Porgy and Bess appears to.

After all, the story of Porgy and the denizens of Catfish Row exists to show the humanity, the dignity, and the heroism of a segment of society that, at the time, was often viewed as being less than human by the dominate white population. In theory this Hungarian production does the same for Middle Eastern refugees.

But, according to the New York Times, there's a complication: the group that licenses out this particular piece of intellectual property, the Gershwin Estate, requires any performance of Porgy and Bess to be carried on by a nearly all-black cast — something the Hungarian State Opera staging certainly is not. The Hungarians say the stipulation isn't in the actual contract, but was merely something the estate's representatives indicated verbally. Since then, the Gershwin estate has asked the Hungarian Hungarian State Opera to note that the production is an unauthorized performance, and the company has complied.

Either way, it doesn't matter who's in the right here. This controversy has little to do with whether or not a contract was broken.

Instead, the discussion has been focused around the question of whether white actors can perform works intended for black players, especially a work focused on a singularly African-American experience. In essence, should we allow Porgy and Bess to be whitewashed?

Emotionally speaking, the answer seems easy: No. It's shameful and disrespectful and it deprives black actors from performing one of the few roles that were specifically created for them.

But when you look at recent discussions involving the popular cinematic and literary characters of James Bond and Spider-Man, the answer, if we are to be consistent, has to be, yes. Porgy can be played by a white man and Bess can be a white woman. They aren't real people. They are fictional creations.

As such they can be anything, even if they are written to be one race or ethnic group or nationality. In fact, neither gender nor sexual orientation should be deal breakers.

Or at least that's the argument that has been employed to champion the idea of celebrated British black actor Idris Elba as Bond, African-American actor and singer Donald Glover as Peter Parker, and the white British actress Jodie Whittaker as Dr. Who, a role that has been previously played 12 times by white actors.

When it comes down to it, what we're dealing with here has nothing to do with the particular logical arguments for or against changing the race or sex of a particular fictional character, it's about cultural ownership. More specifically, it's about cultural possessions being taken from a minority group by the majority group without acknowledgment, respect, or payment.

Think of it like this: because James Bond is a creation of the majority culture, he belongs to everybody. The same goes for Dr. Who or Spider-Man, although in the latter case one could argue that Peter Parker, much like Superman and other superheroes, is uniquely the creation of a first generation American Jew coping with a world in which he has a dual identity as both a white American and an other. But that is an entirely separate column.

The point is, unlike Bond, Porgy, Bess, Sportin' Life, and all the rest belong to African Americans in a way that goes beyond a contractual clause with the Gershwin estate. It's something innate. It's something that can't be reasoned against. It simply is.

And for those adopting that stance, taking Porgy and Bess away from Black Americans would be yet another act of cultural appropriation, another bit of thievery, by the same white population which stole rock 'n' roll, hip-hop culture, and Southern cooking.

Of course, if you are to believe that, then you have to believe that art isn't for everyone and cultures should be protected by walls every bit as impenetrable as the one proposed by Donald Trump.

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