The photograph is surrounded by others, all showcasing the same subject in different scenarios. According to the writing on the wall of the exhibit; fear, pain, exhaustion, anger, sadness, and hope all share a place in this hall. This particular piece seems to defy the others, in its embodiment of apparent joy and untroubled men and women.
The photo in question is showcased in the back of the “Women and The Civil Rights Movement” exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art. The picture displays the 1952 Chicago revival production of Porgy and Bess, An opera written by George Gershwin set in South Carolina. The play features an all black cast which according to Alex Mann, Brock curator of American art at the Chrysler, “Shocked the opera world when it premiered in New York City in 1935”.
The revival gained wider acclaim, running for a total of 305 performances. 181 more performances than the original, according to britannica.com, bringing fame to cast members such as singer, Leontyne Price. Today this creation is recognized by theatre communities as one of the first great American opera's.
Porgy and Bess features a wide array of themes including, dealing with loss, racial stereotypes, fighting for love, and wanting a secure life and future. In theatre today we still see these themes shown in similar ways, for example in the relatively new musical, Hamilton.
Hamilton tells the life story of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, presenting his loves, losses, and his unwavering resilience. Hamilton has a very diverse cast, something that it’s gotten heat for. As history is aware, Alexander Hamilton was not puerto rican and his rival, Aaron Burr was not African-American. This was something Hamilton writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda did on purpose, despite it creating historical inaccuracies.
Miranda wanted to tell the story of how America started using a modern American cast. In an interview with Howard Sherman, Miranda said, “Frankly, this is why it’s so important to me, we’re one of the last entertainment mediums that has that power”.
Both productions made waves in terms of defying social standards in the theatre community. Porgy and Bess with its’ unwavering all black cast during the birth of the Civil Rights era and Hamilton 64 years later showing the truth of the american population in a story historically, and currently, dominated by white males.
These productions bring more to the table than just American history, their shared themes and standing relevance in not just the theatre community but also the general public brings the hard topics to light in a way nothing else will. These contrasting stories present topics usually difficult to talk about in a way that relates to everyone watching.
The exhibition presented at The Chrysler shows powerful images taken between the 1950’s and the early 1980’s that show not only women but the entire human race pushing past the limits given to them during that time, not unlike the limits we are trying to push past today.
“Women and The Civil Rights Movement” will be open until October 30th at The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.