This activity requires no preparation other than attendance at the Live in HD transmission of Porgy and Bess.
- To review students’ understanding of Porgy and Bess
- To examine notions of cultural ownership and appropriation
- To encourage students to consider their own cultural consumption
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
Use their experience and their knowledge of language and logic, as well as culture, to think analytically, address problems creatively, and advocate persuasively.
Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Seek to understand other perspectives and cultures and communicate effectively with audiences or individuals from varied backgrounds.
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they like? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? This discussion should be an opportunity for students to review their performance activity sheets and express their thoughts about the visual design of the Met production, the singers’ performances, and Porgy and Bess’s music and story.
When Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935, black thinkers were sensitive to the portrayal of African Americans on the theatrical stage. They strongly believed that dramatic artworks could be powerful tools for uplifting their race—in 1925, The Messenger, an influential black literary publication of the Harlem Renaissance, had published an entire issue on the role of the arts in the social and political improvement of African Americans—but they were also aware that, if misused, art could be a means for perpetuating ugly stereotypes. When Gershwin’s opera premiered, black critics celebrated the opera’s all-black cast and chorus, which was then—as it is even today—a rare occasion for significant black representation on the opera stage. They also praised the artistry of the opera’s singers and noted their educational pedigrees from Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, and Columbia University. But as for the work itself, many critics found its purported “authenticity” to be dubious; some opined that Gershwin hadn’t created an authentic black opera so much as a Broadway musical with a black veneer.
These viewpoints invite a consideration of the ways that artworks incorporate influences from outside their creators’ own culture. You might prompt students with the following questions:
- Who is qualified to tell a culture’s story? Members of that culture? Scholars of it? Anyone?
- When might the use of artifacts or images from a culture outside your own be offensive?
- What types of representation should be avoided? Can you think of examples from movies or sports that are offensive? Why are they offensive?
- How can artists and authors demonstrate respect for a culture outside their own while still incorporating aspects of it into their own work?