Kevin Riordan was a 2018 Writing Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study and teaches at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is a co-founder of the Modernist Studies in Asia research network and is at work on a book about circumnavigation and the world stage.
In 1954, Maya Angelou performed in a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that toured through Italy. This United States-sponsored initiative brought African American performance to European stages in an effort to combat Soviet propaganda about American racism. As Melanie Masterton Sherazi shows in her contribution to this cluster, Angelou’s own memoirs of the trip recall not only the staged productions on the tour, but also the everyday performances outside of opera houses and concert halls. When the cast of Porgy and Bess arrived in Venice, for example, they stepped out into a public square where they were confronted by what seemed a menacing Italian crowd. As Sherazi describes this scene, these African American performers recalled and rehearsed a familiar Jim Crow–era “script” in the piazza. As it turned out, the crowd was there to welcome them and an impromptu scene of opera singing ensued. This spontaneous Venetian performance reveals how changing contexts can prompt performers and audiences to invent something new. In modernist performances on the world stage, roles spontaneously shift and everyday performances are spliced with more conventional theatrical productions. This cluster follows the peregrinations of both well-known and forgotten performers, tracking the chance encounters and improvised performances of a modernist theater always on the move.