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Island Notion

Off the Carolina coast, a vibrant Gullah culture sprang up, based on African folk traditions, the sea's bounty -- and the tragedy of slavery.

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Creole nation: Public TV’s culture past and present.  

Tourists have discovered St. Helena, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina -- the salt marshes and bird trills, praise houses and blue doors and broken crockery at ghostly grave sites. And the restless wealthy are also looking for vacation homes. Which means development. Which means in turn more property taxes that punish the subsistence fishermen and farmers with a cash economy that sends them to the mainland for wage labor in the “hospitality industries.” Thus the living remnant of what made the Sea Islands so cautionary and exotic will be either dissipated or boutiqued. God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters (Sunday, February 8; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) fears the theme-parking of St. Helena even as it celebrates a culture resonant with whispered witnessings, dense with multiple meanings, and symbolic of resistance and identity.

That culture is Gullah. It arose in the eighteenth century off the Carolina-Georgia coast, where three out of every four African slaves arrived in chains and learned to make do with what they’d brought with them, what they remembered, and what was thrust upon them. It’s a hybrid of West African and Christian religions; a compounding of the languages of English, Ibo, Yoruba, Kikongo, Mende, and Twi into the creole that gave us words like gumbo, juke, yam, and voodoo; an economy of rice, cotton, shrimp, and sweetgrass baskets; and a music of slave-ship lamentations, call-and-response work songs, and plantation spirituals, like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” into which an Underground Railroad had been coded. While this “invisible church” gave way to robes, pews, organs, and gospel, it did so without ever quite relinquishing its performance faith of “shouters” and “seeking,” of “walking right” and the circle dance.

We got a dream version of Gullah culture in the 1992 “American Playhouse” production of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, a creation myth and an epic poem of exile and migration. In images as splendid as I have ever seen on any screen, we contemplated “the children of those who chose to survive” at the turn of the twentieth century, packing up in bare ruined choirs to leave for jazzier places like Harlem. There were chatty photographers and bullying missionaries, watery totems and flying horses, wish books and effigies for a conjuring in the branches of talking trees. But mostly, under parasols, in flatboats or carriages, or at picnic tables, there were women, each said to represent a different Yoruba deity and to embody the ghostly past and radiant future. From the novels of Toni Morrison, of course, we would find out what became of them.

In God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters, producer Teresa Bruce and director Paul Keyserling are more anthropological-documentarian than the dreamy Dash but no less loving, contemplative, and nuanced. We stare at heartbreaking stills of the Middle Passage, the American landfall, and plantation servitude. We listen to a music bred from broken bone. We tour-glide with Ruby Dee through baptismal waters and sacred groves. We sit in on the work and the worship. We meet locals skeptical of tradition, traditionalists worried the past will be lost, youngsters ashamed of their pidgin, elders at oyster roasts, and visitors who want to own all the magic for themselves. And we are ever so gently nudged to understand that out of such assimilated horrors and such creative hybrids comes American culture itself, the savory pepper and bloody salt that season us.

Perhaps not so oddly, George and Ira Gershwin took up temporary residence on this same Carolina coast in 1933, to make opera out of a problematic novel by DuBose Heyward about black life in the Charleston ghetto. Porgy and Bess: An American Voice (Wednesday, February 4; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) follows the opera’s several incarnations, from its 1935 Broadway flop to a more successful revival in 1942, the world tours of 1952-53, Otto Preminger’s 1959 film version, the 1985 Metropolitan Opera staging, the Trevor Nunn productions at Glyndebourne in 1986 and at the Royal Opera in 1992, and the 1993 television premiere as a co-presentation of “Great Performances” and “American Playhouse.” Along the way, on which we are once again shooed by the tireless Ruby Dee, in an evenhanded script by Gloria Naylor and Ed Apfel, we hear a lot of Gershwin, see remarkable newsreel and performance footage, and talk to fans and critics, singers and sociologists, Cab Calloway and Maya Angelou and William Warfield and Leontyne Price.

Yes, Porgy and Bess and Sportin’ Life are stereotypes. But so is Madame Butterfly. Yes, George and Ira and DuBose were white. But so is Paul Simon -- and as jazz pianist Billy Taylor reminds us, George spent quality time not only in Harlem but also in the black churches of South Carolina, and acknowledged his debt to them. And at least the Gershwins insisted on black actors and singers playing most of the roles in the opera. Without Porgy, the stage at the Met might never have been integrated. To be sure, when Barbara Hendricks sang “Summertime” just before the en-Nobeling of Toni Morrison in Stockholm in 1993, our brand-new literature laureate refused to clap. Angelou, who went on the State Department tour, is more generous: “Take the beauty that is inherent in it and exalt it, and cherish it, and be made taller and better and finer by it, with gratitude for it.” Huckleberry Finn comes to mind.

I could have done without the docudramatizing of DuBose Heyward in the throes of creation, but An American Voice is otherwise a model of this sort of cultural inquiry, this teasing of ambiguous texts. We get to sing along with an important argument, in the middle of television’s annual dues-paying Black History Month. TBS will devote all this coming Sunday, February 8, to films like Sounder, In the Heat of the Night, The Mighty Quinn, Corrina Corrina, The Tuskegee Airmen, Glory, and A Woman Called Moses. Showtime is once more showcasing original work by black filmmakers like Nat Colley -- whose The Abortion of Mary Williams (Monday, February 9; 7:30 to 8 p.m.) features Shirley Jordan and Joanie Pleasant in a surprise twist on the hot-button topic, in the form of a color-blind debate between mother and daughter (and present and future) on the termination of a pregnancy. We have Small Steps, Big Strides: The Black Experience in Hollywood to look forward to next week on AMC, and Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls the week after that on HBO. Any excuse is better than none of such programming, although it seems to me that television has long been more honorable and more conscientious than most of our institutions in responding to the black experience in America -- certainly less willfully ignorant and tin-eared, for example, than the reviewer of Toni Morrison’s Paradise in the daily Times.


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