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Spoleto Festival USA Highlights
6/10/2016 2:39:51 PM

The cast of “Porgy and Bess” gather for a well-received applause from the audience after their June 1, 2016 Spoleto Festival USA presentation. Photo: Hakim Abdul-Ali
By Hakim Abdul-Ali

Midway through this year's Spoleto Festival USA's galaxy of outstanding musical presentations you could tell that variety was at the center of so much of the events buzz.

It seems as though the audiences are delighted with the diverse entertainment package put together by the staff at Spoleto for this year's venue. For me as a cultural critic for "The Chronicle," South Carolina's leading African-American newspaper, it's a welcome pleasure to see so many prominent African-American performers doing their thing in grand style and sophistication.

Week two at Spoleto was a spectacular montage of real dynamic entertainment happenings, and it was something to behold, both visually and from a distinct listening point of view. Here are my views on the ones that I saw.

"Porgy and Bess"

This show, with spectacular visual scenic art work by the master visual artist Jonathan Green, was "the talk" of this year's Spoleto events. Sold out from the its initial offering to the public, the celebrated and controversial opera by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward was seen by me on June 1, 2016, and the entire presentation was strong from beginning to end.

The opera's David Herskovits directed an amazing entourage of supremely talented singers and actors led by Lester Lynch, as Porgy, and Alyson Cambridge, as Bess, and he tried to portray the city in the very best light. The opera is known throughout the world but it still seems to be looked upon by many as something that is of an olden time and occurrence.

Maybe it is, but, after all, since Charleston is at the center of the nation's eye in many instances, because of recent tragedies surrounding the Lowcountry, an operatic play like Porgy and Bess can (and does) stir mixed emotions from many different perspectives. The opera strives to make manifest the Black community that is now has always been at the Holy City's heart and pulse.

The thing that was different about this particular offering of "Porgy andBess" was that, along with Mr. Green's wonderfully bold artistic visionary genius and his passionate colorful scenic backdrops, the African-American community seems to come to life with vibrancy and seems to be a central and meaningful manifestation of worthy expression in this stunning and current presentation. The presentation was a definite hit as so many people, including many local and national dignitaries, related to me of same after the two act opera was held at the Charleston Gaillard Center.

Cecile McLorin Salvant

The recent Grammy Award winner jazz vocalist and her band took the Spoleto on a musical excursion at the College of Charleston's Cistern Yard on Friday evening, June 3, 2016, in an hour-long serenade. This French-American, as she identified herself to be in our meeting for her initial Spoleto appearance some years back, was at her best as she and the gifted Aaron Diehl on piano, drummer Lawrence Leathers and steady bassist Paul Sikivie provided an enjoyable musical fare for all to savor on a cool Charleston night.

Covering songs from "Wild is Love", "Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before" and "Somehow, I Never Could Believe", Ms. McLorin Salvant demonstrated why many consider her to be the next female superstar jazz vocalist in the making. She has an aura that makes you realize she enjoys what she's doing.

Take for instance when she sang Ida Cox's 1924's tune "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues". The audience, with total assistance from the audience's ladies in attendance, seemed to agree with McLorin Salvant's emotive and innovative twists on this marital song. They all synced together. It was a highlight of her presentation along with "Wives and Lovers", a zestful Burt Bacharach '60s classic, and her rendition of a unique covering of "Something's Coming" from the Broadway spectacular "West Side Story."

"Grace Notes Reflections For Now"

A great and timely visual piece by Carrie Mae Weems about being of color and living in the world of today. Set in a time frame of visionary depictions dating from the Civil Rights Era to the contemporary present, this visual play asks much of the audience to look closely at what he, she or they think about the concept of race and life in a world of violence.

Superbly crafted and presented using airy sound, visual imagery and dramatic readings, the Carrie Mae Weems play struck a nerve, with strong language at times, to demonstrate what people of color have to deal with in a world of bigotry. The play pays commemorate respect to well known and lesser known victims of violence by law enforcement and other entities.

"Grace Notes" is a magnificent masterpiece showcasing music, poetry and vocals, complete with a strong live jazz musical score backdrop that adds a sharp flavor of eye-popping awareness to the very present political moment. The lighting and simple stage design was an awesome mood display, setting the somber mood for a rather thoughtful, but all-too-necessary atmosphere for human dialogue on race.

You'll be hearing more about this piece in months and years to come. Spoleto hit the nail on the head with this piece, especially considering the racial climate that is uncomfortably existing in so many sectors of America and beyond.

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