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Restored 'Porgy and Bess' gets key test on road to Met Opera

A restored edition of a pioneering, enduring American opera emerges at a time its racial and social themes are as relevant as the era in which it premiered.

The long-in-the-works "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" gets a test-drive Saturday in Michigan en route to a planned, official debut in 2020 by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The staging is a collaboration of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, the University Musical Society and The Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale blending students, community singers and professional performers.

University musicologist Mark Clague says the goal is to deliver on co-lyricist Ira Gershwin's late-in-life declaration, "We must do right by Porgy." Among other things, the nearly final draft restores some deleted music as well as an onstage "Orphans' band," and dialogue that clarifies Bess chooses to stay with Porgy.

Work began in 2002, nearly 20 years after Gershwin's death. Descendants of the lyricist and his composer brother, George Gershwin, sought music librarian Wayne Shirley to edit a new performance edition. The University of Michigan's involvement in curating the project came through Todd Gershwin, the Gershwins' grandnephew who graduated from the school in 1997. The family also donated one of George Gershwin's pianos to the university — likely the one on which he composed "Porgy" — that will be used in the performance.

Clague said restoring original elements provides "a deeper artistic engagement" for the 1930s work criticized for cultural appropriation by its white creators but also praised for possessing an activist spirit and affirming humanity. He adds that the opera's themes of mistreatment by law enforcement and the justice system stubbornly remain part of the black experience.

Surrounding the performance is a multiday symposium designed to provide an overview and context of the work, as well as explore appropriation in popular culture.

"What I would love is for this to be a nostalgia piece," said Clague, who oversees the Gershwin Initiative, a scholarly deep-dive into the brothers' works in partnership with descendants. "Instead, it intersects with so many (current) themes. ... We're confronting those moments."

From the beginning, the principal roles were given to blacks — unprecedented at the time — but that doesn't erase all concerns.

Clague is sensitive to the call from former Michigan professor Harold Cruse, who asked black artists of the 1960s to boycott the opera because he viewed it as "a symbol of that deeply engrained cultural paternalism that obscured black artists' originality." Clague said the "all-white creative team" wrote from a "limited perspective and experiences" but they embraced "an opportunity to bring the talents of black artists to the cultural mainstream."

Morris Robinson, who plays Porgy, recognizes it isn't "black music per se," but he respects what George Gershwin did for black artists through his prominent platform.

"I don't think he's exploiting us at all. I think he was trying to replicate that which he saw and made good on it by saying, 'Only people who look like this should be able to perform this,'" said Robinson, who first played Porgy at Milan's La Scala opera house in 2016.

Talise Trevigne, who plays Bess, understands the concerns of Cruse and others — views still held by some today. She said her generation "benefited from the paths paved by those singers before us" and they owe it to their forebears to bring "great integrity" to "Porgy and Bess."

"You cannot replace history, you cannot change it — though we may not like it," said Trevigne, who first performed as Bess last year at the Cooperstown, New York, Glimmerglass Festival. "I think it's a very reverential attempt to put to opera a people."

Naomi Andre, a Michigan associate professor specializing in opera and issues surrounding gender, voice and race, writes in the program notes there is much to love and be troubled by in "Porgy." Some consider it "the Great American opera," she said, while others see "a frustrating collection of stereotypes that emphasize a vision of black people who speak in dialect-ridden English, drink and gamble too much, and have a loose moral code."

Her view is softened by the "compelling picture of black Southern life" and "true-to-color" casting. Most of all, she's moved by the Gershwins' sonic offerings — timeless melodies woven throughout, including those in "Summertime," ''It Ain't Necessarily So," and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."

Trevigne agrees "the music is breathtaking," but what's crucial is the connection among characters, itself a lesson for contemporary society.

"What I think the African-American community in our times needs to remember is its sense of community," she said. "That's really what it's about — these people who live so closely with one another and it is often a time of life or death. And they cling to one another, good or bad. They are a community."

____

Jeff Karoub is a member of AP's Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffkaroub and find more of his work at https://apnews.com/search/jeff%20karoub .

Minnie Driver, Stephen Fry to read letters live

The theatrical event in which famous actors and musicians read out memorable real letters from history is coming to America with such celebrities as Minnie Driver, Stephen Fry, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Hamill.

Letters Live will make its U.S. debut Feb. 26 at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Ticket prices range from $50 to $200, with all profits going to charities.

Others slated to appear include Jarvis Cocker, James Corden, Anjelica Huston, Catherine Keener, Shirley Manson, Ian McShane and Annabelle Wallis.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a producer, says the letters are "windows into the love, beauty, pain and humor of their creators and recipients."

The event started in London in 2013, inspired by Shaun Usher's bestselling "Letters of Note" series and Simon Garfield's "To the Letter."

Solange Knowles named Harvard Foundation artist of the year

Solange Knowles is getting another honor — this one from the Harvard Foundation.

The singer, songwriter and artist has been named the foundation's artist of the year, and is set to accept the accolade on March 3.

The Harvard Foundation is dedicated to exploring intercultural and race relations, and it's certainly been a major theme in Knowles' work. Her Grammy-winning 2016 album, "A Seat at the Table," touched on racial politics and empowerment issues, and featured hits like "Don't Touch My Hair." Knowles also had an exhibit on black womanhood at London's Tate Modern last year.

Knowles was a Glamour Woman of the Year honoree last year.

Previous Harvard Foundation artists of the year include Denzel Washington, Matt Damon, Shakira, Viola Davis and Salma Hayek.

Blackface in Chinese Lunar New Year sketch draws criticism

A comedy sketch that featured a Chinese woman in blackface has drawn accusations of racism after being broadcast on Chinese state television's Lunar New Year variety show, although some people in Beijing were left wondering why it would be considered offensive.

The skit was shown Thursday night on state broadcaster CCTV and depicted the opening of a Chinese-built high-speed railway in Kenya. It featured actors in monkey and giraffe costumes, while the actress in blackface donned an exaggerated false bottom and a basket of fruit on her head.

The segment was meant to celebrate Sino-African relations but many viewers blasted it online for cultural insensitivity.

The performance was part of CCTV's annual Lunar New Year gala, which draws an audience of up to 800 million and is said to be one of the most watched programs in the world.

The 13-minute segment opened with a dance sequence set to Colombian singer Shakira's "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" featuring Africans dressed in zebra, lion and gazelle costumes, and actresses playing attendants on Kenya's new Chinese-built high-speed rail line.

The skit then began with a black woman asking the show's host to pose as her husband when meeting her mother in order to avoid being set up on a blind date.

A Chinese actress playing her mother then strides in made up in blackface followed by an actor in a monkey costume.

The host's Chinese wife then appears, ending the deception. But the African mother says she can't be angry because "China has done so much for Africa."

"I love Chinese people! I love China," the actress in blackface exclaims.

Although the skit, titled "Same Joy, Same Happiness," was meant to celebrate Sino-African relations, many viewers condemned it online, with some calling it "cringe worthy" and "completely racist."

But the reaction on the streets of Beijing on Friday was muted, with some saying the criticism was overblown.

"It's normal for Chinese actors to dress up like foreigners when performing a foreign play," said Zhou Hengshan, 80. "This wasn't meant to demean any specific ethnic group."

Xue Lixia, 20, said she trusted CCTV's judgment in assessing whether the skit was racist.

"After all, this is a sketch that was broadcast on the Lunar New Year gala. If there was any racism, then it would have already been cut," Liu said.

Chinese society is overwhelmingly dominated by the Han ethnic majority and racial sensitivities are generally much less pronounced than in the West.

Blackface is considered especially offensive in the United States because of its strong connections to slavery and bigotry against African Americans.

This isn't the first time CCTV's Lunar New Year gala has come under fire.

The show is laden with praise for the ruling Communist Party and its policies, especially on culture and ethnic relations, and its portrayals of China's own ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, have sometimes been derided as crude.

Investigation clears former NYC Ballet leader Peter Martins

A two-month investigation has found no verifiable sexual harassment or physical abuse by former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins.

The New York Times reports that the ballet and its school also have announced new policies to assure that dancers "feel safe, respected" and able to freely voice their concerns.

Martins says he is "gratified" by the findings of an outside counsel.

Martins, who denied accusations of sexual misconduct, announced in January that he was retiring. He said the scandal had "exacted a painful toll" on him and his family.

He now expresses hope that the "glorious institutions" can "refocus, without distraction."

The findings were denounced Thursday by two former dancers who had come forward with accusations.

Ballet Chairman Charles W. Scharf defended the thoroughness of the investigation.

Actor Luke Wilson hailed as hero after rescuing woman in fatal crash

Actor Luke Wilson reportedly sprang into action after he was involved in a car accident that left one person dead.

According to The Associated Press, the actor pulled over his vehicle after a Ferrari clipped it on Tuesday and pulled a 50-year-old woman out of her BMW at the scene.

>> Read more trending news 

“He was the hero, he led the charge,” tattoo artist Sean Heirigs said. Heirigs was driving on the road when the crash occurred and told AP that the Ferrari appeared to lose control and go into oncoming traffic before it collided with the BMW and Wilson’s Toyota. Heirigs said that he told his 14-year-old daughter to call for help as he ran to try to assist the woman who had been driving the BMW, which had flipped onto its side.

“She’s crying, she’s screaming, she doesn’t really know what happened, and she was dangling into the passenger side,” Heirigs said. “Her leg was stuck.”

Related: Actor Luke Wilson, golfer Bill Haas involved in a fatal car crash

Heirigs said that he and Wilson were able to come up with a plan to get the woman out of the vehicle.

“We were able to get her leg out from being stuck and then she came out and Luke was pulling her through the back trunk area and then we both carried her to the curb,” Heirigs said. “And this was all going on while the Ferrari’s wheels are still spinning and blowing rubber and smoke everywhere, and it’s loud, and you’re smelling lots of smoke, and there’s glass.”

The woman was hospitalized with serious injuries. Wilson and Heirigs were unharmed.

Professional golfer Bill Haas was in the Ferrari at the time of the accident, according to police. The driver, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was pronounced dead at the scene. Haas was treated for injuries at a nearby hospital. Haas’ manager, Allen Hobbs, told Golf Digest that Haas “escaped serious injuries and has been released from the hospital.”

He had pain and swelling in his legs, but no broken bones. Haas is reportedly returning to his South Carolina home to recover.

Police are reportedly investigating whether or not speed was a factor in the accident.

Actress Keshia Knight Pulliam reportedly owes $102K in state taxes

Actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, who was recently evicted from the house in “Celebrity Big Brother,” owes the Georgia Department of Revenue $102,286.37 in unpaid taxes.

>> Read more trending news 

In a filing in the Fayette County Superior Court from Dec. 30, 2017, the former “Cosby Show” kid owes $51,469 in unpaid state taxes from 2011 and 2013. She has since accrued $27,806.13 in interest, $12,667.44 in penalties, $10,293.80 in collection fees and $50 in extra costs. Her total now exceeds $100,000.

The filings do not indicate she has paid what she has owed since the Dec. 30 filing.

RadarOnline got the original scoop about her unpaid taxes but didn’t have the updated amount owed.

Pulliam asked to leave the CBS’s reality show on Monday because she was having trouble creating breast milk for her 1-year-old daughter Ella Grace. Her castmates obliged, saving Shannon Elizabeth from a possible blindside.

According to TMZ, CBS lured the celebrities with a $200,000 guaranteed payday with more money the longer they stay on the show. The winner could take home $500,000.

Booker Prize to mark 50th birthday by naming overall champ

Organizers of the Man Booker Prize for fiction are marking the award's 50th anniversary by choosing an overall champion from past winners.

There have been 51 Booker winners since 1969, since the prize has twice ended in a tie. The Golden Man Booker Prize, announced Friday, aims to find out which has best stood the test of time.

Judges will select one finalist from each decade, before a public vote decides the overall winner. The champion will be announced July 8.

Past winners of the 50,000-pound ($70,000) prize include V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel.

Originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers, it expanded in 2014 to include all English-language authors. Since then there have been two American winners, Paul Beatty and George Saunders.

Jimmy Kimmel blames Trump, Congress for school shooting

Jimmy Kimmel opened his late night show by replaying clips from President Donald Trump's statement about the killings of 17 people by a teenager with an AR-15 assault weapon at a Florida high school — including the part where Trump said "no parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning."

Kimmel said he agrees, "and here's what you do to fix that: Tell your buddies in Congress, tell Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, all the family men who care so much about their communities, that what we need are laws, real laws, that do everything possible to keep assault rifles out of the hands of people who are going to shoot our kids. Go on TV and tell them to do that!" he said to strong applause.

Kimmel called on Trump to "force these allegedly Christian men and women who stuff their pockets from the NRA to do something, now. Not later, now. And don't you dare let them say it's too soon to be talking about it."

Kimmel urged people to go to the gun safety group Everytown.org for information on how to write and call their representatives, "and if they don't listen, vote them out of office."

Activists delay rebuild of Hawaii hotel with Elvis ties

Developers rebuilding a storied, hurricane-ravaged Hawaii hotel with a Hollywood connection were looking forward to the Coco Palms' rebirth when two men showed up last year, claiming to own the property because they descend from King Kaumualii, the last ruler of Kauai.

The men set up camp in tents and at the old tennis pro shop at the shuttered resort, where Elvis Presley's character got married in the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii." Hurricane Iniki forced its closure in 1992.

"They simply just showed up and started squatting," said Chad Waters, one of the partners of Coco Palms Hui, the company leading the redevelopment.

Police were called, trespassing citations were written, and a judge last month issued an order to evict them.

Since then, a stream of protesters has come and gone, with some days just a few demonstrators and others dozens camped out at the resort near an ancient Hawaiian fishpond in the community of Wailua.

It's the latest example of Native Hawaiian activists taking a stand on cultural issues and sacred places, such as challenging a giant telescope planned for a Hawaiian mountain and blocking the U.S. military from using an uninhabited Hawaiian island as a live-fire testing site.

The protest also comes amid continued activism by indigenous groups across the U.S., who have rallied over issues ranging from sports mascots to environmental causes such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.

Attempts by The Associated Press to reach the two men in the Coco Palms case — Noa Mau-Espirito and Charles Hepa — by phone and online for comment were unsuccessful. However, Mau-Espirito last year told The Garden Island newspaper: "We have title to the land. We're not camping. Our goal is to get all the families who have royal patents in Wailua back on their land."

The judge disagreed with the men, ruling their claims don't give them the right to occupy the property.

For Kaukaohu Wahilani, who flew from his home on Oahu to Kauai to support Mau-Espirito and others, it's about standing up to the wrongs committed against Hawaiians — all the way back to the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom 125 years ago.

"That was the place of kings, that was the place of alli," he said, using the Hawaiian word for ruler or royalty. "It was a sacred place, and it still is."

He and other Native Hawaiians want the area called by its traditional name, Wailuanuiahoano.

At least 50 protesters gathered at the site, bracing for law enforcement action, as the judge's 6 p.m., Jan. 28, deadline to leave the property approached. But no police showed up, and the protesters remained.

"I was kind of hoping (police) would have showed up at 6 because we had a lot of people there," said Wahilani, a Native Hawaiian activist who considers himself a subject of the Hawaiian kingdom.

Last month, the defendants filed a document stamped the "Hawaiian Judiciary Court of the Sovereign," saying the judge in the Coco Palms case needs to surrender to law enforcement or face "immediate arrest." In court documents, Judge Michael Soong called the filing nonsensical "legalistic gibberish."

Five to 10 people have been at the property this week, Waters said.

He and his partner requested help from state sheriffs.

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said only that the sheriffs are working toward a resolution with the property owner, Kauai police and the protesters. "For safety and security reasons, we are not at this time, free to discuss any strategies that may be utilized in any related enforcement action," Schwartz said in a statement.

Demolition began in 2016, with the goal of reopening in mid-2018. The clash has caused delays, so the developers hope to start construction soon after the protesters leave, Waters said.

The renovated hotel will have 350 rooms, including 22 master suites and about 50 junior suites. Hyatt will manage the hotel once it's reopened.

Wailua was the political center of Kauai long before the resort opened in 1953 and Presley's character crooned the "Hawaiian Wedding Song" while holding his bride's hand and boarding a raft to cross a lagoon.

It's where chiefs were born and lived, said Lilia Merrin, a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii's Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. Because of its high amount of surface water, it was ideal for loi, irrigated fields for farming the starchy vegetable taro, a staple crop, she said.

Growing up in Wailua, Merrin knew of Coco Palms mostly as the hotel where family friends worked in service jobs before the hurricane. She learned about its Hawaiian significance in college. "If we understand these places, we can better protect them," she said.

Coco Palms Hui has planned since 2014 to set aside land at the resort for a community nonprofit that will offer lessons in Hawaiian culture, including hula, lei making, Hawaiian language and ukulele.

The nonprofit also will provide hotel workers with a guide about Hawaiian culture and the historic Wailua area. The fishponds and lagoons are on the state historic registry and will be preserved.

Tyler Greene, the other partner of Coco Palms Hui, has said the resort will help the island by supporting "healthy and vibrant activity for both the residents and visitors," according to The Garden Island.

The Coco Palms fight was inspired by what protesters accomplished against the Thirty Meter Telescope, which they said would desecrate sacred Mauna Kea, Wahilani said.

Construction stopped in 2015 after 31 demonstrators were arrested on the mountain for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction ended with more arrests and crews retreating.

The project is now tied up in legal battles.

"Mauna Kea brought us together, and since then we've done amazing things," Wahilani said.

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