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Maya Angelou on the Road with Porgy and Bess in Cold War Italy

Photograph of Maya Angelou.
Fig. 1. Photograph of Maya Angelou. Image courtesy G. Paul Bishop.

In her autobiography Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), Maya Angelou writes that when she was offered the role of Ruby in a 1954 tour of Porgy and Bess that was leaving for Italy in four days’ time, she replied, “I don’t have a passport.”[1] She was assured that this would not pose a problem, since the tour, an Everyman Opera Production directed by Robert Breen, “[was] being sponsored by the State Department.” Angelou thought immediately of “the school [she] had attended which was on the House Un-American Committee list” (Singin’, 128).

This handful of sentences brings African American performance and leftist thought during the Red Scare into an uneasy proximity with modernist cultural diplomacy and Cold War geopolitical aims. The US State Department did, indeed, arrange for Angelou’s expedited passport; such maneuvers were part of its agenda in this period to circulate African American performance as a rejoinder to Soviet propaganda critiquing US racism. With the mounting civil rights movement, the mid-1950s was a time of intense scrutiny for African Americans, particularly those on the left of the political spectrum. Writers and artists including W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson had their US passports revoked, while countless others had their domestic activities and travel abroad surveilled.[2] The concurrent Cold War agendas of sponsoring and surveilling black cultural production signal how the means and ends of African American modernist performance circulated in multiple and often contradictory ways, in and across transnational and domestic publics.

Angelou’s critical autobiographical account of touring with Porgy and Bess in this fraught period stages the workings of Americanism abroad and underscores African American modernist performance on the global stage as a form of embodied resistance to racism and segregation at home. This article emphasizes the tour’s run in Italy for a number of reasons. Much generative scholarship details African American expatriate culture and performance in France, while little has been written about Italy in this context.[3] One reason for this critical elision may be the dynamic comings and goings of tours passing through Italy, such as Porgy and Bess—as opposed to the formation of a stable, recognizable expatriate community.[4] Italy, nonetheless, played a vital role in the State Department’s program of cultural diplomacy; the United States was involved in virtually every facet of postwar Italian society and was intent on shoring up its alliance with this former foe turned friend, particularly as Italy in these years had the largest Communist party outside of the Soviet Union, warranting a containment strategy.[5]

Though the talent displayed on state-sponsored tours like Porgy and Bess was touted abroad as the fruits of American democracy, the ongoing black freedom struggle at home exposed irrefutable social inequities.[6] These dynamics make Italy—a country refashioning itself in the wake of Fascism and wartime defeat, with its own vexed relations between North and South—a rich interpretive site for defamiliarizing the structure of US racism and for analyzing the desegregationist moves in Angelou’s text that reimagine liberatory postwar identities.[7] In the postwar years, the African American scholar Frank Snowden, Jr. tracked in Italy the daily coverage of US race relations by Italian media outlets across the political spectrum. The Italian public, Snowden deduces, were generally very sympathetic to the black freedom struggle and admiring of African American cultural production—dynamics that come to the fore in Angelou’s account.[8]

Angelou dramatizes moments from her time with Porgy and Bess that depart from the US State Department script—one meant to convince a global audience that gradual racial progress was occurring at home—and reveal the uncanny role of the racialized past in the tour’s 1950s present. Her feminist genealogy of African American modernist performance stages key scenes in Italy of socio-political revelation. These scenes enact improvisational modes of resistance that circulate against the State Department’s homogenizing objectives and the era’s dominant, oppressive social scripts at home. Angelou’s narrativization of two scenes in Italy: first, the tour’s arrival in Venice and, second, its epic performance at La Scala opera house in Milan, unpacks the limitations and possibilities of American modernist culture on the global stage.

I read Angelou’s Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas as a critical text that theorizes postwar sociality and models desegregationist practices. Angelou dramatizes the aforementioned scenes in her autobiography in terms of tension and release, presenting a working through that moves from a delimiting script toward the improvisational. Her time in Italy concludes with her working at club owner and singer Ada “Bricktop” Smith’s nightclub in Rome; this culminating scene of feminist solidarity registers the presence of transnational artistic networks operating in excess of state-sponsored channels. Though it has received scant critical attention, Angelou’s dramatic account of her time in Italy gives voice to embodied modernist performance as a liberationist praxis in spite of and against the pressures of American segregation and broader Cold War geopolitics.

With a sustained emphasis on performance, Angelou’s Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas dramatizes her time in clubs and on the road.[9] Angelou frames her path to joining the cast of Porgy and Bess in terms of her desire to be a part of a gifted black collective.

Angelou presents herself first as a spectator who went to see Porgy and Bess in 1953 in San Francisco, where she was working as a burlesque dancer, following in the footsteps of Eartha Kitt. “By intermission,” Angelou recalls, “I had been totally consumed. I laughed and cried, exulted and mourned,” and as Porgy and Bess went on, “I nearly screamed with delight and envy.” She recounts, “I remained in my seat after the curtain fell and allowed people to climb over my knees to reach the aisle. I was stunned. Porgy and Bess had shown me the greatest array of Negro talent I had ever seen” (Angelou, Singin’, 112–13). Angelou’s affective response, which runs the gamut of emotions, culminates in envy: a surge of envy that prompts her to participate in the production herself. Blurring the bounds of performer and audience, Angelou writes of the experience of live theater as one of embodied response—one that hails and solicits her own role in an African American ensemble.

Angelou details this period in her life on the stage as one of improvisation, mobility, and opportunity. After performing her rendition of “Run Joe,” she was cast as the lead in director Saint Subber’s Broadway production of House of Flowers, with lyrics and story by Truman Capote.[10] She could not stop thinking, however, of Porgy and Bess, which she had auditioned for, and “of the sixty people who sang and laughed and lived together, the camaraderie and the pride they had in one another’s genius” (Angelou, Singin’, 127). This description figures Porgy and Bess in the social mode of artistic communion and collaboration. Once offered a role in Porgy and Bess, Angelou’s choice was clear: “There really was no contest. I wanted to travel, to try to speak other languages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most important, I wanted to be with a large, friendly group of Black people who sang so gloriously and lived with such passion” (128). Angelou here places a premium on cosmopolitan experience; “most important” is the phenomenology of being with a group of sixty African American performers on the global stage. Incredulous, Saint Subber “asked [Angelou] if [she] would give up a new Broadway show for a chorus part in a touring company,” to which she simply replied, “Yes” (128). Her desire for membership in a collective takes precedence over the allure of the lead role, setting the tone for her nuanced account, which self-reflexively departs from the state-sponsored script of American exceptionalism and attendant individualism.

Jim Crow Haunts a Venetian Square

Angelou joined the tour in Montreal, Canada, just before its departure for performances in Europe and North Africa. Once dealing with the tour in transnational contexts, Angelou’s account details the performative logics of US segregation working abroad. Ellen Noonan’s comprehensive reading of what she terms Porgy and Bess’s “strange” history through the twentieth century observes that this international tour was burdened with a dual, temporalized task, explicitly laid out by State Department staff: “to frame Porgy and Bess’s onstage content as an artifact of the American past and the cast’s offstage identities as symbols of the American present and future,” thus refuting rampant criticism of the production’s controversial content, as “the cast members themselves embodied a story of American racial progress,” according to the logic of the USIS (Strange Career, 207, 218). Angelou’s dramatization of the tour’s arrival in Venice, where a scene of misrecognition transpired, lays bare the complex, particularized operation of cultural diplomacy on which the cast found themselves.

Angelou depicts a tense encounter in which Jim Crow segregation materializes in a Venetian square. When the cast emerges from the bus filled with excitement, a large crowd of Italians forms and presses toward them. “In general,” Angelou writes, “Black Americans do not take kindly to being rushed by a crowd of strange white men.” In turn, the “singers saw the crowd advancing across the square, and we reacted as if choreographed. We drew in closer to each other, our bags and the bus” (Singin’, 143). Angelou uses theatrical language, describing the cast’s movements to the advancing crowd as “choreographed.” In spite of the cast’s charge from the State Department to project abroad supposed racial progress at home, being surrounded by a group of white people prompts instant dread and the cast’s immediate response is to protect one another. The specter of segregation follows the cast on tour, presenting itself without notice, in traumatic fashion.

Once the cast members orient themselves to the advancing crowd, the threat of mob violence gives way to relief, then delight, marking a move toward improvisation. “As the group of Italians neared us,” Angelou relates, “their smiles became evident; they were welcoming us to Venice . . . We mingled and mixed with the Italians, laughing and shaking hands” (143). One cast member begins to trade bits of Italian opera with the crowd, singing “Puccini, Rossini, Verdi and Bellini,” much to the Venetians’ glee (143). Leaving Jim Crow’s script behind necessitates an improvised, interracial relationality that is mediated by music, body language, and laughter. The Italians’ warm reception catalyzes an alternative mode of sociality, as the cast’s collective role in this scene transforms swiftly from excitement upon arrival, to dread and abjection, and back to elation, thereby estranging, in the process, the arbitrary status quo of segregation at home.

Angelou theatricalizes in retrospect this improvisational encounter in Venice as being among the defining moments of the tour, wherein the cast enters into new scenarios that allow for desegregationist practices. Following the encounter in the square, Porgy and Bess’s opening performance in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice “was a smash hit.” “The Italians were the most difficult audiences to sing for,” she writes. “They knew and loved music; operas, which were mainly for the elite in other countries, were folk music and children’s songs in Italy. They loved us, we loved them. We loved ourselves” (149). Porgy and Bess’s status as a folk opera and opera’s ubiquitousness in Italy across class lines form unexpected transnational affiliations and intimacies. “Loving Venice and Venetians,” Angelou muses, “nearly made me Italian” (150). Angelou emphasizes how love, particularly self-love, radiates across the tight-knit cast and characterizes recognition as an effect of the cast’s presence on one of the world’s most famous stages.

Catharsis at La Scala

An exuberant tone afforded by transnational affiliations suffuses Angelou’s telling of Porgy and Bess’s landmark debut at Milan’s legendary opera house, Teatro alla Scala, or La Scala, in February 1955, where the show ran for a sold-out week. Angelou, nevertheless, takes care to underscore the tense atmosphere that pervaded their momentous appearance, thereby repeating with a difference the structure of their arrival in Venice. “Porgy and Bess was to be the first American opera sung at La Scala,” Angelou observes. “Famous white sopranos, tenors and baritones from the United States had soloed at Milan’s renowned opera house; now an entire cast of Negro singers were nervously rehearsing on the legendary stage. Photographers and journalists lounged around the stage door and waited in our hotel lobbies” (224). Akin to their positive reception in Venice, where posters of the performers plastered the city, the cast members were greeted as celebrities, in stark contrast to social norms at home. Alongside this laudatory dynamic, Angelou details the nervous energy in their rehearsals ahead of their debut.

Program cover for Porgy and Bess at La Scala, 1955.
Fig. 2. Program cover for Porgy and Bess at La Scala, 1955. Robert Breen Papers, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, Ohio State University.

Angelou portrays the scene at La Scala in comparative terms, citing Harlem’s Apollo Theater as the cast’s frame of reference for taking one of the world’s most revered stages: “We were told that La Scala audiences reacted to singers in the same way patrons of the Apollo in Harlem responded to the acts. That warning didn’t need to be spelled out” (225). Audiences at the Apollo, Angelou elaborates, might shout lackluster performers off the stage or even join them “on the stage to show them how a dance should be danced and how a song should be sung” (225). She describes the tension at La Scala as palpable: “I was coiled tight like a spring and realized as the curtain rose that every other member of the cast had also wound themselves up taut for a shattering release” (225). Though in reconfigured terms, the structure of dramatic tension and cathartic release depicted in Venice recurs in Milan. This tension is bound up with the cast’s weighty role as cultural ambassadors, but as the performance unfolds, Angelou’s focus again shifts inward toward the collective of performers, reimagining their mission abroad as one of communal solidarity and empowerment.

Image of Catfish Row from the Italian program for Porgy and Bess.
Fig. 3. Image of Catfish Row from the Italian program for Porgy and Bess. Robert Breen Papers, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, Ohio State University.

Despite the intense pressure and Angelou’s fears, the La Scala debut was a resounding success. News of the audience’s elated response traveled back to the United States and, signaling the wide reach of transnational print culture, was even reported on in central California, where the Hanford Journal told readers of Porgy and Bess’s “Wild Acclaim in Italy,” and how La Scala’s “traditionally critical audience [turned] into a yelling throng,” shouting “bravos.”[11] Angelou narrates the triumphant performance in affective terms that highlight the cast’s cathartic response to the show’s material:

The moment the curtain opened the singers in concert pulled the elegant first-night audience into the harshness of Black Southern life. When Robbins was killed, the moans were real (didn’t we all know people who, unable to talk back to authority, killed a friend over fifty cents?). The entrance of the white policeman was met with actual fear (wasn’t the law always on the side of the mighty and weren’t the jackals always at our heels?). The love story unfolded with such tenderness that the singers wept visible tears. (Singin’, 225)  

The use of the collective pronouns “we”/“our” in this passage underscores Angelou’s impressions of the cast’s “real” moans and its “actual fear,” triggered by the show’s material and its power to articulate great loss and social injustice. This is an interpretation, it should be noted, that was written by Angelou in the mid-1970s that runs counter to many critiques about the opera’s content raised by writers and artists in earlier decades. As with the scene in Venice, a tension that builds toward an uncertain climax is sublimated into a glorious reception that Angelou frames in terms of collective love; “in concert,” the cast’s performance on the global stage mobilizes new possibilities for postwar identities abroad and at home.

Angelou privileges the communal aspects of this ensemble performance and the cast’s pride in and affinity with one another. By the performance’s end, the audience at La Scala was “on its feet, yelling and applauding,” but Angelou notes that “we bowed to compliment each other” (Singin’, 225). “We had performed Porgy and Bess as never before, and if the La Scala patrons loved us, it was only fitting because we certainly performed as if we were in love with one another” (226).[12] The cast channels raw emotion and a shared history of injustice into this explosive performance, achieving a new level of catharsis in the process. The audience’s rapturous response returns to the stage that which emanates from it. The performance complicates and exceeds the State Department’s objectives for the tour to stand in for American experience at large. In ways both subtle and explicit, Angelou’s theatrical life writing spotlights the cast’s move toward collectivity, pressing against the discourses of US exceptionalism and individualism driving the narratives of Cold War cultural diplomacy on the global stage.

Chez Bricktop in Rome

Though Porgy and Bess’s state-sponsored tour was global and ran for years, Angelou stayed only for an abbreviated run, touring for the better part of a year across ten European and North African countries. She left the tour in Rome after the show’s run at the famed San Carlo Opera. Porgy and Bess was the first American opera to be performed at the San Carlo Opera, where US Ambassador to Italy and playwright Clare Boothe Luce, a staunch anti-Communist, was among the audience members at opening night and visited with the cast afterwards.

In Rome, Angelou formed a bond with famed club owner Ada “Bricktop” Smith.[13] Based on Paris dancer Bernard Hassel’s suggestion, Angelou was intent upon visiting Bricktop’s, “the most fashionable nightclub in Rome,” on the Via Veneto. Bricktop’s, which first opened its doors in 1951, was a lively, interracial venue frequented by an eclectic, influential blend of ambassadors, reporters, entertainers, and film-industry types. By the end of their first meeting, writes Angelou, “I didn’t doubt that Brickie had the keys necessary to open the Eternal City” (Singin’, 227–28).[14] These keys had as much to do with desegregationist practices promoting more expansive social identities and freedoms as with Bricktop’s cultural cachet on the global stage.

Angelou called upon Bricktop and social networks in Rome outside of the State Department for material and emotional support when her son fell ill at home; she wanted to leave the tour to return home but was informed that not only would she have to pay her own way, but she was also responsible for paying her replacement’s fare from the United States. After Angelou confided in Bricktop about her financial woes, Bricktop offered her a job performing in her club that very night. Angelou recalls, “For the next two months I not only danced in the opera and sang at Bricktop’s but also found daytime employment” teaching African movement to dancers from Rome’s opera house (Singin’, 229). Such transnational artistic networks of labor and care register an alternative feminist sociality, forged outside of state-monitored channels, and evidence the circulation of black diasporic cultural forms in postwar Italy.

Angelou’s account celebrates moments of communal achievement in a performative mode—ultimately, not in the service of the nation-state’s prescribed aims, but rather in dialogue with a complex and often paradoxical transnational Americanism. Tasked with somehow representing a literally and psychically divided body politic, Porgy and Bess’s cast embraced the opportunity to travel the world and perform in esteemed venues to adoring audiences. Angelou’s text performs a recognition of a gifted African American cast who were both compensated and praised for their cultural labor, redefining their tour’s mission on their own terms. Her performances on the global stage and her dramatic autobiographical account both defamiliarize US racism and segregation at mid-century and provide a significant record of black feminist modernist performance.[15]

In the 1970s, when Angelou first tackled what would become a series of autobiographies, her editor Robert Loomis advised her to write her life story “like literature”; perhaps it is more accurate to say that she wrote it as dramatic literature, particularly Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas.[16] Angelou’s black feminist emphasis on life writing’s sociality— what Angelou terms autobiography’s ability, taking inspiration from Frederick Douglass, to be “always saying ‘I’ meaning ‘we’”—takes on added resonance when set in the context of a touring collective.[17] This privileging of the social unmasks the solitary “I” of traditional autobiography and of lead performance to spotlight, instead, a mobilized, heterogeneous “we.” Angelou’s account brings black modernist performance on the global stage and a dramatic mode of life writing to bear upon one other; her black feminist thematics, written during the period of second-wave feminism, showcase the politics of recognition within an artistic community and the necessarily collaborative, transnational labor of imagining and enacting social change writ large.


Notes

[1] Maya Angelou, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (New York: Random House, 1976), 128. The opera Porgy and Bess was based on DuBose Heyward’s first novel, Porgy (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1927), set in an African American hamlet, “Catfish Row,” in Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy and Bess was adapted for the stage by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, in 1927, with music written by George Gershwin and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin for its 1935 debut as an opera. The 1954 tour that Angelou joined was produced by Robert Breen and Blevins Davis and funded by the US State Department, alternately starring Leslie Scott, Irving Barnes, and LeVern Hutcherson as Porgy and Gloria Davy, Fredye Marshall, and Martha Flowers as Bess, alongside a large cast of classically trained singers. The Breen-Davis tour originated in 1952 in Texas. See Robert Breen Papers, SPEC.TRI.RB, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, Ohio State University. In its various incarnations and from its inception, Porgy and Bess inspired intense debates regarding questions of authenticity, authorship, appropriation, and audience. The opera’s content has been critiqued both for its caricaturing of African American experience in terms of poverty, sex, drugs, and violence and for its having been created by white men. See Ellen Noonan, The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 275–77, for an overview of prominent African American artists and critics including Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte, and Harold Cruse in the late 1950s and the 1960s who critiqued the show’s content as derogatory.

[2] William J. Maxwell’s F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015) provides readings of the FBI files of scores of African American artists and intellectuals, made available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Maxwell evidences the incredible closeness with which the FBI read African American literature. Mary Helen Washington’s study The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) traces how, counter to conventional readings of the period and in spite of coercion, black radical leftist writing and organizing remained strong during the Red Scare.

[3] For studies of African Americans in Paris, see, among others, Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), T. Denean  Sharpley-Whiting, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2015) and, most recently, Laila Amine’s Postcolonial Paris: Fictions of Intimacy in the City of Light (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018).

[4] African American writers and performers including William Demby, John Kitzmiller, and Ben Johnson made Rome their long-term home in the post-World War II period.  

[5] For more on the formulation of the strategic “containment” of Communism, see George Kennan (originally published “By X”), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25, no. 4 (1947): 566–82.

[6] See Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). Scholars including Frances Stonor Saunders and recently Greg Barnhisel have demonstrated the complex entanglements between the US State Department and its cultural “ambassadors” of modernist literature, art, and performance. See Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 2001), and Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). In an international context, Penny Von Eschen focuses on the role of “jazz ambassadors” like Louis Armstrong and Dizzie Gillespie, whose improvisational talents, she argues, ultimately subverted the State’s objectives (Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[7] See Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922–1945 (Oakland: University of

California Press, 2001) for a discussion of modernist culture’s and the Italian cinema’s significant roles in Italy’s transformation into and beyond a Fascist state.

[8] See Frank M. Snowden, Jr., “The Italian Press Views America’s Attitude Toward Civil Rights and the Negro,” Journal of Negro Education 21, no. 1 (1952): 20–26. Alongside political coverage related to US race relations, Snowden notes that the Italian media regularly covered appearances in Italy of black American entertainers, including Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

[9] Notably, given this article’s emphasis on her time in Italy, Angelou wrote much of this volume from the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy.

[10] See Singin’, 112–13, for Angelou’s account of her audition for Saint Subber. Porgy and Bess went on to tour the Soviet Union, funded by the Russian government and accompanied by many journalists, including Truman Capote, who wrote of the experience in a series of articles for The New Yorker, collected as The Muses Are Heard (New York: Random House, 1956).

[11] “Porgy and Bess Wins Wild Acclaim in Italy,” Hanford Journal, February 25, 1955. Robert Breen Papers, SPEC.TRI.RB.3.115.4, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, Ohio State University.

[12] This is not to say that life on the road was always easy or that bonds between cast members formed effortlessly. Angelou often depicts herself as an outsider given the fact that, unlike the majority of Porgy and Bess’s cast, she was not classically trained.

[13] Bricktop also ran clubs in Paris and Mexico City. See Bricktop and James Haskins, Bricktop (New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 1999).

[14] It is important to note that Angelou differentiates her time on the road in Paris and Rome, citing France’s long history of colonialism and continued racism in spite of claims to being a “colorblind” society.

[15] In the years following her time with Porgy and Bess, Angelou had success performing in Calypso acts in the late 1950s and appeared in avant-garde, ensemble theater pieces in New York such as Jean Genet’s The Blacks in 1961.

[16] Loomis is featured in the PBS documentary And Still I Rise (2016). See Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack (Arlington, VA: PBS, 2016).

[17] George Plimpton, “The Art of Fiction CXIX, Maya Angelou,” Paris Review 32 (1990): 145–67, 152, emphasis added. For more on the privileging of the social “we” over the autonomous “I” of traditional autobiography, see Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, “Life Narrative,” Reading Autobiography: A Guide of Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 1–20.