Not for the first time my eyes welled up while sitting in the discreet semi darkness of a metropolitan theatre. This time I was in New York City watching the revival of the George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The source of the incipient tears was the thought of the opportunities not taken and developed for our musicians and other performing artistes, who can and should be seen on the great stages of the world.
I also ached to tell my mother Celia and auntie Lorna thanks for growing me up to revere accomplishment and for enabling me at a tender age to see Geoffrey Holder dance, to listen to Kazim, her work colleague talk about Hosay, to love mas and calypso and to absorb their admiration for Paul Robeson, who struggled against discrimination and official retribution (his passport was taken away on account of his activism) to have his singing voice and theatrical talents appreciated.
Their stimulus and that of my revered teacher still propel me to the theatre after more than 50 years of fanhood, the latter being my word for my persistence in seeking to sate those pores of my soul which raise and respond to great performances. But let me not wear my heart on my writing sleeve any further today and move forward with Porgy and Bess and its relevance to artistic opportunities lost.
Porgy and Bess was written in 1936 and is set in the then segregationist southern United States. The main story line tells of the physically challenged Porgy (deformed foot) taking Bess into his humble home on Catfish Row, when she seeks to get away from the life of a sketel and the use of "happy dust", and the romance between them which ensues as Bess becomes clean.
It is worth mentioning that in 1936 Paul Robeson would have been 38 years old and in the middle of his personal struggles. 1936 was also the year that Hitler and his entourage walked out of the Berlin Olympic games when Jesse Owens won the 100 metres against the grain of Nazi theory of superior race. The interaction of fact and creative fiction was complete that year.
The Porgy and Bess story is set against the background of African American life in the segregationist South. Some of the sorrows of life in those conditions are mitigated by music and dance and the enduring belief that the Lord will uplift the oppressed.
In the course of the exposition of the music and dance in Porgy and Bess, I heard drumming which was of the same DNA as drumming in Trinidad and Tobago. Sporting Life, the chain-up artist and seducer from New York City, who ultimately lures Bess back to the life of bling and happy dust, which was not tolerated in Catfish Walk, executed some dance steps that were pure Kitchener; nor could I forget Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance.
I link this to Chorus Line, another Broadway classic, which tells the story in song and dance of each of a number of individuals auditioning for a place in a chorus line. When I saw this show I imagined how readily an adaptation about individuals making a Panorama stage side could be produced under the title The Front Line — a pan experience, having sought the prior consent of the holders of the copyright and the marketing skill of a seasoned booking agent.
Seventy-five years later, the fictional life of Bess and the real life of a similarly conflicted woman interact. Writing in this month's Vanity Fair, David Seal quotes one of Whitney Houston's producers: "We talk about her addiction, but when you look at Whitney Houston, you have to realise how much work she did, how much love she put out into the universe."
In the increasingly brutal world of Trinidad and Tobago the poison of gun crime is being allowed to menace the hard work and love put out by our under appreciated musicians and other performing artistes. They have a work ethic and a love, which, as I have said so many times before contains fertile seeds for the reform and renewal of our decaying social fabric.
When the classic "Summertime" was sung in Porgy and Bess, one part of my brain reprised the pan version. I recalled reading of Despers concert in 1987 at Carnegie Hall, in said New York City. I felt sad about the unfinished business of Pat Bishop, who conducted them there and who died while on the job of trying to enlighten politicians about our untapped cultural wealth.
When the badjohn Crown, the abuser of Bess, killed Robbins in a murderous brawl, his widow Serena sang "My Man's Gone Now" and lamented that: "Old Man Sorrow is coming to keep me company." Without the programmes and policies for cultural promotion and for which Pat died fighting Old Man Sorrow will be taking up permanent residence in our Republic.