In 2015, Spoleto Festival USA commissioned internationally renown painter Jonathan Green to create the set and costume design for the production. Mr. Green contacted me about documenting the process, and I thought I was making a short film about how architecture and fashion can define a culture. I read the original book, "Porgy" to start my research and was immediately overwhelmed by the strong themes of systemic racism, domestic violence, and disability discrimination, among others. After completing it on a Sunday afternoon, I called my father, who was on some community boards with Mr. Green, and told him that I would be calling the artist I admired that Monday to turn down the project. I felt it exploited a sad story about a Black man and at that time in late 2015, when Charleston was still recovering from the Emmanuel Massacre, I wasn't in the mood to produce another depressing story about a Black man.
My father responded by saying, "I was a teenager when that 1970 production happened, and I remember there being a sense of pride in the community." He began to name my family and friends who were a part of it. Intrigued, I ran to open one last book I was reading: "The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess" by Ellen Noonan, and read her epilogue which focused on the 1970 production in Charleston. Citing credible sources, she described the production as the only amateur performance the Gershwin Estate permitted in the United States at the time, it was the first time anything was performed in the city before an integrated audience, that the local cast received critical acclaim, the event was covered by major press including "60 Minutes", the L.A. Times and the New Yorker, and the cast was nationally credited with a moment of racial healing.
If I didn't know about this, and I knew so many people who were a part of this production, how many other people that would be empowered by learning about the Geechee cast and their sacrifices, how many of them still didn't know about this cultural touchstone?
The scores of people who could be inspired to understand this cast who suffered illnesses, heart attacks, and miscarriages, all to bring this production to their divided community? Would Charleston have handled our 2015 shock and grief better had we known about what happened in 1970?
The questions crowded my head.
I knew one thing for sure, my focus was not going to be on Jonathan Green's designs.