nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 14, 2011
Porgy and Bess is my favorite opera after Tosca; I found myself humming "Summertime" and "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" the day I went to see Chasing Heaven, about a prize-winning Black female writer appointed to revise a dead Jewish composer's "Negro folk opera." In real life, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has revised the text of Porgy and Bess, the new production slated for Broadway this winter. However, playwright/director/lyricist Leah Maddrie writes in Chasing Heaven's program that she started penning her play five years ago, well before the Porgy update was announced. How's that for zeitgeist?
As you'd expect, Chasing Heaven is loaded with high-pitched controversy surrounding race, cultural ownership, artistic freedom, authenticity, and legacy. May we borrow or adapt from each other's cultures? Can you rebuild your artistic greatness upon the pain of others, as the main character accuses? Does the second adaptor owe something to the first? Are oppressed peoples still silenced? Does dismantling stereotypes dismantle art? Is art supposed to entertain or to enlighten? Whose story is it, anyway?
Chasing Heaven satirizes the creation of such musical classics as Porgy and Bess and Cabin in the Sky (with a little of The Jazz Singer thrown in), as well as satirizing movements to preserve and promote Black culture. Here's the story, with some suggested real-life parallels:
An earth-motherly, Afro-proud, super-sincere scholar and author, Dr. Kinshasa "Tree" Morton (think Toni Morrison, or Ms. Parks herself), is hired by the estate of Joshua Gerwitz (think George Gershwin) to update the libretto of his folk opera "Chasin' Hebbin." A Black male playwright, George DuBois (think George C. Wolfe or August Wilson) teases her—"Working for The Man?"—to which she retorts, "Your Tony Awards don't exactly come from the Black Panthers!" Proud of having resurrected the once-obscure works of the late writer/anthropologist Lolly Kibbins (think Zora Neale Hurston), and seeking to revive her own flagging career, Kinshasa marches into Gerwitz's office ready to right yet another historical wrong—and runs into Joshua Gerwitz's ghost.
The satire is hilarious, sometimes downright vicious. "Chasin' Hebbin"'s characters include Troutbait, a one-armed blind man in love with Josephina the hussy, and Dick the Devil—or is it Dick de Debbil?—a flashy drug dealer. Kinshasa's past books are titled "Chains in the Cotton" and "Boll Weevil Blessing," and Lolly's novels include "Papa's Tears Make Good Pot Liquor." Flashbacks include Gerwitz and the minstrel-ish actor Grinney Standing teaching dignified singer Velma Murphy to say "we is" and "gwine." Velma storms out, but soon Lolly appears, offering Gerwitz her cultural know-how: "I need to write. I need to create. I need to eat."
In gripping battle scenes, Kinshasa accuses Gerwitz's ghost of stealing Lolly's work and of "reinventing yourself with our pain." He defends his cross-cultural research, his entertainment value, and his place as a serious artist, and wants his work kept as is. "Who else was writing about your people?" he cries. "Lolly Kibbins!" she explodes.
Christine Campbell captures the seriousness, dedication, and frustrations of Kinshasa. Linda Kuriloff sings and acts well as Velma, and also plays well the dignified yet starving Lolly. The energetic Daniel Carlton enlivens the stage, whether he is playing the bongo-playing Curator, the kiss-up Grinney, the dignified butler Joseph, or the semi-militant George. I was uncomfortable with the Gershwin stand-in portrayed as a sleazy cynic, although Gerwitz is quick to tell Lolly, "You're not confusing me with that Gershwin guy, are you?" Greg Horton finds some tender, charming moments as Gerwitz, but I suspect the actor was uncomfortable fleshing out his character's darker side.
Chasing Heaven, with its angst and controversy, is fascinating and funny, but also intellectually and emotionally exhausting. It has two sweet original songs—"Fascination with Dancing" (wink, wink) and "Chasing Heaven," plus some telling notes of "Rhapsody in Blue" played lightly by pianist/composer Peter Dizozza before the play begins. Opera and musical theater buffs, political arguers, and students of Black history will probably love it. Others may find it too taxing. It might be worth it, though, to learn something about the history that drives America's racial conflicts.