REVIEW: The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

Some context (and spoilers):
On the surface, Porgy and Bess is a story that revolves around Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess, a woman who’s being fought over by different men. The opera is divided into three acts: the first act introduces the characters and initiates the relationship between Porgy and Bess (her partner Crown kills a man and has to disappear); the second act explores Porgy and Bess’ romance and Porgy’s devotion to Bess; the third act stages the fight between Crown and Porgy over Bess. In the resolution, Bess follows Sporting Life, a smooth talking drug dealer, to New York after Porgy is taken in by the police after killing Crown.

Saturday’s Porgy and Bess performance was certainly interesting. The four hour show is described as an “opera in concert.” Opera turned concert? Opera cum concert? The terminology’s a little confusing but the point is clear: the focus is more on the music and less on the acting. Rightfully so, the stage was stripped of any props, costumes (the gambling scene felt more like a socialite gathering rather than a men’s night), and any real action. Crown and Robbin’s “fight” was “played” out by the full blown orchestra surrounding the puny stage, while the actors stood their waiting to sing their next pieces. I’m not complaining though. Being familiar with covers of some of the songs, I was very pleasantly surprised to listen to the original versions sung by powerful, masterful leads.

Analogy wise, it’s similar to seeing a friend in front of his/her parents for the first time. It’s different. It’s definitely not as “fun” but there’s a certain sense of elegance and sophistication you’re gauging from this “new” fellow. Or think of mac and cheese served with truffles and caviar, plated in porcelain. It’s an old comfort dish, served differently. Not bad, just different.

Before listening to Clara’s official rendition of Summertime, a lullaby for her baby in Porgy and Bess, I only knew (and loved) Al Jarreau’s carefree, springy version of it, from his album “Tenderness.” I never knew the haunting “Summertime” original, sung by the amazing Janai Brugger, was meant to foreshadow death and loss in the play.

My overall favorite song has to be Sporting Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” When I listened to the piece for the first time before the opera, I was preparing for a hellish ABRSM piano exam. This, of course, meant that I was force-fed music that was stripped of its lyrics and taken out of its context, over and over again. So yes, I hated the song. I didn’t understand why it didn’t sound as good as other jazz pieces (easy answer: my piano was out of tune and I could never play it right) and I hated the abrupt, awkward sounding choruses. But coming out of the concert, I remembered only one character, Sportin Life, for the rest of the night because of that song. Chauncey Packer’s rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” gave me shivers. His wholesome, cascading tenor voice molded Sportin Life as a professional, more of a magnetic entrepreneur rather than a greasy con-man, as some actors might portray him. Unlike the empty piano cover I played for an exam, the original version was meaningful: the lyrics gave it context and the singer gave it character. We see Sporting Life embodied in the song: foul-mouthed and “corrupted” at heart, but wrapped by a hypnotic, charismatic cover.

I also enjoyed listening to the other Gershwin compositions. Some notable ones include the sonorous, earthy “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There” sung by Reginald Smith Jr.’s Jake the Fisherman and the soulful, gospel-esque “Oh Doctor Jesus” sung by Karen Slack, Morris Robinson, Dorian Dillard II, and Lenora Green-Turner as Serena, Porgy, Peter, and Lily. I’m definitely including these songs in my playlist.

All in all, the Gershwin Initiative’s test performance for Porgy and Bess was an exciting musical adventure to witness.

PREVIEW: The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess can be considered the quintessential American opera of the 20th century. This particular performance is special, however, because it would be showcasing the fruits of the SMTD’s Gershwin Initiative for the first time. George Gershwin died prematurely at 38 and left a trail of hard-to-read handwritten scores that often led to inconsistent musical interpretation. The Gershwin Initiative is a conservation project that aims to analyze and reproduce Gershwin’s work in the way he would’ve wanted it to be shown. Porgy and Bess will be including classics such as “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Summertime” (listen to an amazing Al Jarreau cover here)  and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (I played this for an ABRSM piano exam).

Porgy and Bess will be performed on Saturday February 17 in the historic Hill Auditorium.

REVIEW: They, Themself, and Schmerm

Like performer Becca Blackwell, it’s hard to define They, Themself, and Schmerm as a specific “type” of performance. Like a stand up comedy special, it’s funny, observational and at times, oddly insightful; but, unlike a regular gig, Blackwell’s narrative highlights scenes from their entire life, like a cohesive, revealing, well-told memoir.

Blackwell’s performance is an attempt to connect the dots in their sexual identity, both for themselves and their audience. They questioned the origins of their queerness (“I wasn’t aware I was a girl between ages 0 to 3” “What makes a man? I acted like a boy, I looked like one, the only thing I didn’t have was a penis.” ). They prodded at their impressions of binary gendered people (“before I took testosterone, men were just shades of grey, obstacles that got in the way of women”). They broke down their insecurities in public life (“I hated the men’s room- there were all these unfamiliar sounds and sights–I had to turn my feet this way and that to pretend I was peeing standing up”). And they shared their various roles in other people’s lives, like when Blackwell was cornered into a mother figure for a niece because the rest of the men “blanked out.”

Blackwell’s delivery is raw and honest. One of my favorite parts of the show was Blackwell’s use of “Blerrgghh” (while jutting out their head and wiggling their fingers) to refer to her femininity. It’s an honest portrayal of the interwoven confusion, annoyance, lust, unpredictability, and fear of the vagina and female hormones. It’s also a metaphor for the confusion that comes with figuring out who we are, who we love/lust, and why we love.

After a dive into their engaging stories, I came out with a better sense of the complexity of gender identity as well as its salience, in the form of socially awkward and even dangerous moments, for people who don’t conform to the binary standard. And it’s resonant, not only with people who are involved in the LGBTQ+ community or remotely identify themselves as such, but also with those who claim to be part of the more mainstream identities. The innocent questions that were brought up in Schmerm were definitely in my head at some point of my life, but I didn’t have enough of the curiosity nor the courage to follow it up even further. And I’m certainly not alone in this. Schmerm is a call to acknowledge, appreciate, and question without fear, the uniqueness of our own identities.

“A schmerm is a schmear of gender. It is basically the sound that people make as they try to figure my gender out.”- Blackwell in a short opening video.

REVIEW: Underground Railroad Game

I’m glad I got a warning from my professor before I actually watched the play. “Explicit scenes,” he wrote in a mild-mannered email, “some nudity.”

Some, indeed. The image of Teacher Caroline, in skirt and bra, using a school meter ruler to lift Teacher Stuart’s penis in a sexually charged after-school fantasy is still burnished in my scantily prepared mind.

But don’t get me wrong. While sex plays a big part of the play, it’s not a publicity tool there to generate WTF moments. It’s a crucial sub-theme explored within the context of the modern racism the creators are trying to break down and show audiences.

Stuart and Caroline, leaders of Confederate and Union “soldiers”

Their agents? Middle school teachers Stuart, a “progressive” white teacher and his black colleague/romantic partner Caroline, who are on a quest to teach impatient middle schoolers (i.e the audience) about the silver lining of slavery: the Underground Railroad. Interestingly, while this classroom narrative initiates the play, it’s not the main feature nor the closer. Instead it served more as strategically-placed intermissions that relaxed some of the visual, emotional, and mental overload delivered by the three other interweaving narratives (so that our brains don’t just explode in one sitting).

The first narrative is one where we see Stuart and Caroline outside of the classroom on the street, talking on the way to class. Their conversations turn coquettish at times but uncomfortable in most. Stuart often stumbles around making earnest comments that often sound racist (in discussing the possibility of them becoming a couple, he blurts out that he needs to check with “her people”). Caroline takes them without offense and responds with her own racist jokes (at one point she does a Mean Girl imitation). These scenes point at the obviousness of race in today’s often-termed “post-racial” society.

Slave and Abolitionist

The second narrative is a role play that involves the characters Stuart and Caroline act out for their “students” in class: an abolitionist and the slave he tries to protect. It’s a simplified children’s story that exaggerates the “good parts” of slavery, satirically portrayed fairytale style, with a hero and a damsel in distress. Fittingly, the play cuts this narrative before it comes to a conclusion almost all the time, as if it denies its overstated significance in the conversation about racism.

The third narrative is set in the bedroom (and the couple’s shared fantasyland). It’s here that the play explores a lot of its discussion-worthy themes in racism. One of the most memorable scenes in the play happened in this setting. What was initially a “Meet a Slave” lecture (Stuart interviewing Annabelle/Caroline the slave for the students) turns increasingly sexual FAST after Annabelle/Caroline starts complimenting Stuart’s body. But this is no ordinary sex scene.

A/C (in an elevated curtain-like dress): “What do you like about me, Teacher Stuart?”

S: “Your voice.”

A/C: “What do you like about it?”

S: “It feels like it-”

A/C:”Comes from the Earth? Rolls…over my body?” (starts unbuttoning her blouse while motioning for Stuart to come over. She starts to hum a spiritual, haunting tune.)

With Caroline’s torso fully naked, Stuart comes over, suckles her breast, then crawls under her ballooned dress. Yep, its definitely R-rated.

But it takes an interesting look at race relations. A slave, bound and reduced to her manual labor, is at the same time glorified (she is much bigger than Stuart on top of invisible stand), and fetishized for her association to the Earth. She becomes a form of enslaved Mother Earth that is treated as an object but at the same time, enshrouded by a primeval form of energy that attracts and fascinates white men.

These interesting investigations on race were sprinkled throughout the play. During my class discussion after the play, we touched on things like Stuart’s “progressive racism” and Caroline’s “revenge” fantasy that explore racial relations from two sides of the divide. Overall, Underground Railroad Game is definitely one of those plays that you will remember for a very long time. Now, I’m gonna get back to figuring out how they did it all.

REVIEW: Hair & Other Stories by Urban Bush Women

I’m an international student. So when I took a class to fulfill the Race and Ethnicity requirement for my LSA degree, I was initially very uncomfortable. My class holds a lot of in-class discussions that revolve around racial issues, especially- at least up until now- racism towards African Americans. A lot of times I was skeptical about things like institutional racism because I thought, just by seeing black artists on movies, I could assume that America HAS progressed from the Civil Rights movement. I thought some students were too sensitive at times when they talked about their experiences with racism. Basically, I didn’t understand what the minority experience was like in the U.S and the extent, for some, of its negative implications.

But by 10pm on Friday when Urban Bush Women’s performance ended, I think I gained a little more sympathy. The experiences of students I listened to with a deaf ear and authors I had to read about with a blind eye, came alive in the performance. One of my favorite scenes was one where four dancers enacted a scene where a young black woman got her hair “done,” which I learnt was the painful process of straightening supposedly “ugly” original hair into the straight, “TREsemee- smooth” hair that was socially acceptable. The tension between the beauty you see in yourself and the beauty norms that others inflict on you was well-expressed by the jerky, restless movements of dancers impersonating strands of hair being viciously pulled out. What differed in this performance from a regular discussion or lecture was its ability to TRANSFER the feelings created by this personal anecdote to other people. Pain, irritation, and confused anger. The vicarious feelings that reached out to me found an audience within my own memories. I know the feeling of succumbing to peer pressure about ideas of beauty that I know doesn’t apply to me. I know the awkward confusion and uncomfortableness of finding personal values that clash with the status quo.  And they all resonated with what I saw on stage.

In other words, I related. This was the transcendental power of Urban Bush Women’s multi-dimensional performance Hair and Other Stories.

PREVIEW: Hair & Other Stories by Urban Bush Women


“Hair & Other Stories” is a collection of performances combining different forms of dance, singing, and acting that relay stories peeling at issues relating to identity. Performances will be accompanied by original music composed by the Illustrious Blacks.

Questions to keep you going:

How does UBW intend to extend current conversations on American social justice? What does it mean to explore these issues through movement? How will this be more effective in reaching audiences than say, a more “straightforward” lecture or a poetry reading?

Where/when do I go?

Power Center at 8:00pm, Jan 12 2018.

Very inspiring teaser?