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Dennis Whitehead Darling: The Power of ‘Porgy and Bess’ at Red Mountain Theater

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Je’Don Holloway Talley
For The Birmingham Times

Internationally acclaimed Dennis Whitehead Darling, director of Red Mountain Theater Company’s production of Porgy and Bess which opens February 7, wants to use his talents for more than just entertainment.

“I want to use my artistic voice to tell passionate and emotionally moving stories that would inspire people and audiences to feel or discover a new social or political perspective,” he said. “I wanted to direct theater that examined, debated, and provided insight on issues that face African-Americans, people of color or any marginalized group of people.”

By sharing and understanding these views, “we could better understand our world and take steps towards positive change,” he said. “I’m often moved by the words of [African American novelist] James Baldwin ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.’ I knew that my art had to serve a purpose besides entertainment and that’s why I’m happy to be a director because of theater’s innate ability to entertain, delight and enlighten.”

Darling will be in Birmingham next month to direct Porgy and Bess which is showing February 7- 23.

Set in an impoverished, Depression-era, African American community called Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, the production details the relationship of Porgy, starring Cecil Washington Jr., a disabled street beggar, and Bess, Deloris McKenzie, a woman suffering drug and physical abuse.

Love Story

Darling said Porgy and Bess is a love story “and it focuses on the joys and struggles and tragedies of the people living in Catfish Row. The messages and scenes of this piece are alcohol addiction, drug abuse, violence towards women… but at the same time there is hope.”

“There’s a sense of community between the citizens living in this small group in Charleston, and they’re able to come together as a community and endure tragedy, a hurricane, violence, death, and despair.”

Porgy and Bess set in the early 1930s Depression-era was originally written in the ‘20s “yet, what’s interesting about this piece is there are scenes that are still relevant today, [and] there are scenes that you might relate to the opioid crisis that’s gripping the United States right now,” Darling said. “Another interesting [aspect] about the piece is the relationship between the African American community and the police force and that negative current that’s also relevant today.”

Still, it really is a love story, Darling said. “Those themes are touched upon, but it shows us how love can blossom when it’s nurtured and people are treated with kindness, compassion and respect…. It takes a realistic approach to it, not all problems are easily solved in life…. It really speaks to the frustration and despair of how the opioid addiction has gripped the United States. But through Porgy’s unconditional love and his attachment to Bess, the message is about love and power of love,” he said.

Darling said he feels audiences will fall for the passionate love between Porgy and Bess and also see moments of laughter because “we are showing a real African-American community with some attitude and comedy,” he said.

The Texas State University grad has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theater and a Master’s in Theater Arts degree with an emphasis on directing. He then earned a Master of Fine Arts MFA in directing from The University of Memphis.

Operatic Work Of Art

Darling said audiences will have an opportunity to connect with a traditionally operatic work of art “told through the lens of musical theater.”

He said this iteration of Porgy and Bess was revamped from its original form to give it a more musical theater form which makes it much more accessible to a broader audience, he said. “Modern opera is new in its form and the subject matter is much more current and accessible to audiences and it’s interesting to me that this piece has a modern opera feel, but is traditional opera,” he said.

Darling, a 20-year theater veteran said, “I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with these incredible actors that are passionate about this piece and their work in this work of art.”

He who has been involved in the theater industry for the past two decades got his start as a musical theater performer and later became an artist who directed 80 musicals and then made the transition to stage director where he’s been responsible for 10 stage productions.

“I recently moved into the professional industry about five years ago…I’ve been directing community theater for 15-years, [but] now I strictly am a professional director,” he said.

Thanks mostly to Opera Memphis Darling got a chance to direct his first opera about four years ago.

“From that, I was then asked to be the first Madam McCleave Fellow for Opera Memphis, which is a fellowship dedicated to nurturing the careers of stage directors and music directors of color,” Darling said.

He got his start as a professional after graduate school.

“In 2015 I had an opportunity to work with a director out of New York named Patricia McGregor on a project called ‘Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole’,” said Darling, “I served as associate director which opened up quite a few doors.”

Asked about hurdles he’s had to overcome as a black director, he said there has been a recent shift towards hiring directors and music directors of color as storytellers in theater and opera. With being asked to direct Porgy and Bess in Birmingham, and a piece for Opera Birmingham, different companies and opportunities, sort of follows that new trend,” he said, “… and they’ve [Opera Birmingham] asked me to come back next year, so I’ll be coming back to Birmingham [in 2021].”