Saturday, 15 July 2017

I Got Plenty Of Nothing

If we are lucky when we are at school, we get to have at least one stand-out teacher who inspires imagination, who teaches us to think, who adds to our cultural experience, the teacher we remember most of our lives.

I was in Standard Four at Picton Primary School, aged ten, and my teacher was Mr Curtis. He seemed an innocuous man, not very tall, wearing a suit, white shirt and tie. He set our desks in straight lines facing the the blackboard. He thought our drawing was terrible so he taught us how to draw in 3D, a suitcase, then a train curving towards us straight off the blackboard. Once he had us drawing Māori people. Coming from mostly Pākēhā Blackball, no telly back then, my knowledge of traditional Māori culture and dress was negligible, but I drew a brown lady in flax skirt, but then what did she wear on top? My mind was a blank so I left her topless, drew her breasts in. The other kids were like, haha, that's rude, but Mr Curtis put my drawing up on his display board just outside the classroom with all the best drawings, not because mine was especially good (it wasn't) but because it was outside the norm. Honest. Brave even.

Mr Curtis was an artist, into music, and a storyteller. He would set us a task, maths problems generally, and while we were working away, he would rub everything of the blackboard, and start to draw. We'd be peeping, what's the story going to be about? We would finish our work, he would finish his drawing, and then he would sit on his desk and just start the story telling. Sometimes it was a story from Greek Mythology, sometimes it was an old classic, Charles Dickens, maybe. Today it was the musical, Porgy and Bess.

I remember very imperfectly, as the story of a lovely man, a cripple who wheeled himself around on a wooden cart and lived in a shack.  He meets Bess, she moves in with him, but then, from her past comes the bad man, the criminal, who takes her away with him. I didn't understand back then why she had to choose to leave Porgy (not sure I do even now, I might need to try and track down the book or something). Porgy is heartbroken and leaves his home to find her. As I said, that's how I remember it. I doubt Mr Curtis played us the whole record; it would have taken far too long but the song he definitely did play was "I got plenty of nothing", which I have remembered all these years, a refrain in my head even though I don't recall hearing the song since. However, I have always held this idea that material goods were less important than other things, that it is "he tangata, he tangata, he tangata, he aha te mea nui o te ao", it is people who are the most important in the world. It's all only stuff, eh.

So many influences in our lives inform the person we become, the beliefs our parents role model to us, the culture of our country, the stories and music in our lives, our teachers. Porgy and Bess looms large in my life thanks to Mr Curtis, even though I never heard the whole thing then nor since. My ideas about how we should be living in this world, ideas about social justice and fairness in this world.

Because of Mr Curtis, I first heard the music of Gershwin, soul and jazz styles at age 10, after a childhood of pop music, Shirley Temple and Julie Andrews musicals.

Today, fifty years later, I find Porgy and Bess on Spotify, sung by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and it is as fresh as it was, all those years ago. Loving it.

A Bit of Extra Info

DuBose Heyward wrote his novel, Porgy, in 1925. In 1927 he and his wife, playwright Dorothy Heyward, adapted the novel as a play. Composer George Gerswhin made the play into a musical which was produced as Porgy and Bess in 1935. Porgy and Bess was first performed on the 30th of September, 1935 featuring a cast of classically-trained, African American singers. No Blackface.
Following the performance in Boston, then from the 10th October in Broadway for 124 performances, then on tour in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington DC. In Washington the cast successfully protested segregation in the National Theatre, eventually resulting in the first integrated performance in that theatre.

In 1942 the show was revived for Broadway. On the 23rd of March 1943, the show was premiered in Copenhagen, this time with white actors/singers in Blackface, presumably so as not to offend the sensibilities of Hitler and his gang as the Nazis were occupying the country at this time. However after 22 performances the Nazis closed down the production anyway. The show was also performed in Gothenburg and Zurich, Sweden, and Zurich, Switzerland. still with white actors in Blackface in 1948.

Over the years the show has been successfully revived.