Conflict on Catfish Row: The curious case of post-Gershwin Charleston

Rainbow Row in Charleston, S.C., features houses of many colors. Courtesy of Explore Charleston (ExploreCharleston.com)

▼ Podcast: Decomposed

The palm fronds are still there in Charleston, S.C. And so is the mad man in front of City Hall holding colorful signs that look more like works of angry art than words of powerful protest. But blonde ponytails now jog comfortably past areas where I used to see only black faces. Historic streets that used to feature dilapidated homes in underserved communities now stand proud spotlighting newly built Charleston-style homes, the Rainbow no longer restricted to the Row.

I'd always been told the homes were painted those famously pastel colors so that slaves, who didn't know how to read, could deliver things more easily between their masters to the "yellow house" or the "pink house." The hometown I didn't pay too much mind to, in the way most kids dismiss their early places of residence, was suddenly a mainstay on HGTV and the Food Network. My husband and I made notes to return to visit the fancy restaurants we'd never laid eyes on growing up.

Jade Simmons, the host of Decomposed, grew up in Charleston, S.C. Rob Davidson

And now, when I share that I'm from Charleston, former tourists fall over themselves to share that they've been to the Holy City and were blown away by its beauty. It doesn't hit them right away that the beauty they're fawning over is controversial, like how the charming City Market they shopped in on Meeting Street was less than half a mile away from the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street, where families were sold, separated and traded like cattle. They would have never guessed that the mad man they nervously passed downtown near the Four Corners of Law was my father, who wasn't mad at all, but was certainly angry about the state of gentrification and the displacement of poor black people in his place of birth.

They never realize it, just like we sometimes forget when we hear the mesmerizing music of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess that it's beauty is also controversial. Even as a serious young classical musician growing up in the land of Porgy, I wouldn't learn that the opera was based in my hometown area until I was in college. And now, as the final episode of Decomposed highlights the piece and maybe more importantly, the plight of its original cast, an old hometown friend on Facebook is telling me they live down the street from "Porgy's" grave. In keeping with the rigor of the fastidious quest for accuracy on the show, I'll need to fact-check that myself before I even feel comfortable "liking" the comment!

Just as I had no idea about the whereabouts of Porgy's remains, I was equally clueless about the positioning, the manipulation and the opportunity it afforded this first all-black cast. They were both making history and potentially helping to rewrite it inaccurately. They were both being showcased and exploited by the U.S. government to promote a conveniently rosy picture of how blacks were living in America, and they were doing it all via some darn incredible music! How do you reconcile it all?

I think of Gershwin sitting in churches and nightclubs probably not too far from places I spent time as a teenager. He must have been blown away by the vocalizations he heard floating by so easily in the beachy breezes, songs being sung so effortlessly by locals, instruments being mastered so wondrously by nameless prodigies who'd go on to stay nameless, even if their skills were put on worldwide display in his music.

Soprano Leontyne Price, jazz singer Cab Calloway and William Warfield starred in the London production of 'Porgy and Bess.' Shiel/Getty Images

To be honest, I've always been conflicted about the subject of cultural appropriation. When do we decide the line is crossed, the one between homage and thievery? Especially when the product is so powerful, can't we let it slide? Or can we? It's like when people praise Charleston to me and marvel at the big, beautiful mansions on the battery where some of the wealthiest slave owners lived facing Fort Sumter. They visit the gorgeous campus of the Citadel Military College, a place my mother worked while my father protested outside of it for its continuing to perform the Confederate anthem "Dixie" at the football games.

It's like that time I finally got to do something most classical pianists will never experience. Sure, we'll play Gershwin's Preludes for Piano, and if we're really lucky we'll get to perform Rhapsody in Blue with orchestra. I've done both. But what I thought I would never do was what so many famous singers have done almost as a rite of passage, from Leontyne Price to Audra McDonald. I even watched Kim Aiken, a former Miss South Carolina do it on live TV as she walked away with the Miss America crown. I got to sing "Summertime" — outside of the shower.

There I was on stage, starring in a musical as Lillette Harris, a legendary, classically trained, jazz concert pianist and entertainer. She also toured the world on behalf of the U.S. government, performing for troops stationed everywhere you can imagine. She's played Gershwin for state officials, other celebrities and a president or two. I was playing her feisty Gershwin medley for piano and vocals, which sandwiches "Summertime" between an instrumental and a fun rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So." You can't imagine the glory of it all, to have your vocal chords, ones rarely heard in public outside of speaking, get to wrap themselves around the clever gorgeousness of Gershwin's songs. That's when I knew I understood the conflict those artists must have felt on stages the world over as they awkwardly soaked in the praise and the standing ovations.

In this music, they'd found showcase pieces that could display a full range of their fluid capabilities, music that carried rhythms they could lean into, and technicalities they could exploit flawlessly. I couldn't be mad at them for the cultural and moral conundrum in which they found themselves by being trotted on stage, possibly doing a disservice to the very people back home they hoped to make proud. I'm sure it stung for the others in the cast to hear Porgy sing so convincingly that life was more than good as long as he had his gal and his God. It probably stung to have to purposely garble the N-word when they had to sing it in the text. But the other moments, maybe they made up for it? Just as the fine dining on King Street and the allure of the horse-drawn carriage rides down gentrified streets make up for Charleston's beautifully ugly past. Or does it?

I ended the episode with original cast member Maya Angelou's statement of belief that she was in many ways singing and performing for the people behind the appropriated music. I wondered how she felt when she found out that she wouldn't be singing on their behalf at the White House, a snub from the very government that had sent her on its quest to paint U.S. race relations as perfectly aspirational to audiences wowed by the music abroad. That was one audience they wouldn't be granted and definitely wouldn't be wowing.

It's a curious case, isn't it? The music, the man, the message, the musicians — and the city, too. The conflict remains. And somehow, I think that's exactly as it should be. That's the ugly beauty of it all.

▼ Podcast: Decomposed

Nicknamed "Classical Music's No. 1 Maverick," Jade Simmons is the host of the Decomposed podcast. She also is a concert artist, bestselling author and a passionate storyteller with a strong understanding of classical music's roots.