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DuBose Heyward

Downtown's Spoleto Festival begins next week, an annual celebration of the performing arts that continues Charleston's place in the national arts. An early landmark of the city's arts prominence rose nearly a century ago with ""Porgy and Bess" and its ties to one of Charleston's leading artistic couples of the early 20th century, Dorothy and DuBose Heyward. The couple were A-list names in their day, well before writing the libretto for George Gershwin's adaptation of the Heywards' novel and play "Porgy."

DuBose Heyward came from an old Charleston family that traced its ancestry in the city to well before the American Revolution. Unusual for an aristocrat at the pinnacle of Charleston's elite white society of the time, Heyward pursued a lifelong interest in African-American Gullah culture, and incorporated Gullah dialect and traditions into his 1925 novel of life in Charleston's black slums, "Porgy". It was drawn from a newspaper article about Samuel Smalls, a paraplegic black man who made his way around Cabbage Row (part of present-day Church Street) in a cart drawn by a goat.

"Catfish Row", c. 1930 (courtesy College of Charleston)

Dorothy - a playwright and novelist whom Heyward had met during a writing workshop in New Hampshire and married in 1923 - adapted the novel into a play of the same name, which opened on Broadway in 1927 featuring at the Heywards' insistence an all-black cast, highly unusual at a time when most black stage characters were still being played by white actors in blackface.

George and Ira Gershwin with DuBose Heyward (center)

The play formed the libretto for the Gershwin jazz and blues-inflected opera cast with classically-trained black singers, which met with much controversy when it premiered in Boston in 1935 but has since become one of the most widely-produced American works in the operatic canon.

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