Clarke, Hope 1943(?)–
Hope Clarke 1943(?)–
Director, choreographer, actress, dancer
Hope Clarke made history in 1995 when she became the first African American, and the first African American woman, to direct and choreograph a major staging of the opera-musical Porgy and Bess. Clarke’s production of the George Gershwin classic was staged in celebration of the work’s sixtieth anniversary, and it toured not only major American cities but Japan and Europe as well. Clarke, who earned a 1995 Tony Award for her efforts on Porgy and Bess, drew critical acclaim for her commitment to staging the show as a monument to African American community and pride, giving a more hopeful, positive aura to a story that has been criticized for its stereotypes. As for the director herself, the success of Porgy and Bess is just the latest accolade in a long career devoted to dance and drama.
A native of Washington, DC, Clarke grew up in just the sort of community she sought to portray in Porgy and Bess. Segregation was still a fact of life during her childhood. She recalled, for instance, how people shopped through mail-order catalogues in order to purchase clothes offered in stores where they were not welcome. “The black community, as I remember it, was very closely knit,” Clarke said in the San Francisco Examiner. “Before the fabric of this society was torn by racism and lack of education, we all took care of each other. We all watched each other’s children.”
As a young woman, Clarke had everything she needed to succeed in show business: beauty, ambition, and talent. In 1960 she landed a role in the original touring cast of West Side Story, a musical play about rival big city gangs. Following West Side Story, Clarke served as a principal dancer in two noted African American dance troupes: the Katherine Dunham Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She was particularly prominent in the Alvin Ailey company and sometimes danced in partnership with Ailey himself. Clarke told Essence magazine that her years as a professional dancer helped her to prepare for the next stages in her career. “The discipline I learned in dance carried over into acting and directing,” she said.
After leaving the Alvin Ailey group in the 1970s, Clarke moved into acting. Her most notable feature film performance
At a Glance…
Born ca, 1943 in Washington, DC. Dancer, actress, choreographer, director. Principal dancer with Katherine Dunham Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 1960s; actress on stage, film, and television, 1970s-1980s; choreographer and director, 1980s—. Television appearances include Hill Street Blues, The Jeffersons, Three’s Company, and As the World Turns. Principal stage appearances include Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope, Purlie, and Hallelujah Baby. Choreographer, Jelly’s Last Jam (Broadway), 1992, Por-gy and Bess (Opera Ebony), 1993, and numerous other productions. Director and choreographer, Porgy and Bess, Houston Grand Opera, 1995.
Selected awards: Tony Award nomination, 1993, for choreography m Jelly’s Last Jam; Tony Award, 1995, for directing Porgy and Bess.
manee was in A Piece of the Action, starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. She also appeared in guest roles on numerous television shows, including The Jeffersons, Hill Street Blues, Three’s Company, and As the World Turns. Her Broadway credits include Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope, Purlie, and Hallelujah Baby.
When she wasn’t busy acting, Clarke was called in to choreograph various stage and television shows. She discovered that she enjoyed the challenge of choreography and, after years as a dancer, was eminently qualified. Besides, she joked in Essence, “I had bills to pay.”
Clarke found ample opportunities to develop her choreographic skills and was rarely without a project either in America or abroad. She worked for the New York City-based Opera Ebony, helping to produce Porgy and Bess in such unlikely venues as Brazil and Finland. She earned a Tony Award nomination for choreography for her work in the 1992 Broadway hit, Jelly’s Last Jam. Over time, Clarke’s choreographic talents were directed to projects as diverse as Dorothy Rudd Moore’s Freedom and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. All of these efforts helped to bring Clarke to the attention of opera and musical theater executives. One of them was David Gockley, general director of the Houston Grand Opera. Gockley had decided to create a whole new touring production of Porgy and Bess, and wanted an African American director for the project.
Clarke thought the idea was splendid. “I’ve worked through the ranks, and I was ready for this, “she recalled in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Elsewhere, in the San Diego Union-Tribune, she spoke to the contributions she could make to the play as an African American and a woman. “As a director, I guess I bring in the female sensibilities,” she said. “Since I’m also an actress, I’ve really tried to develop the characterizations so that the performers don’t do a little singing here, and some acting there. And coming from a black perspective, I know how we think, how we feel, what we do. I understand the little things. That makes a difference.”
Porgy and Bess was written by a white composer, George Gershwin, for an all-black cast. The story, set in a fictitious Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood called Catfish Row, revolves around a crippled beggar named Porgy, a sensuous woman named Bess, and two troublemakers, Crown and Sporting Life. Though Gershwin’s score has always been highly popular, especially the ballad “Summertime,” the characters and setting have drawn criticism for portraying African Americans in stereotypical ways. For example, Porgy begs for money, Bess takes lovers, Sporting Life sells drugs, and Crown is a murderer.
Clarke knew that she could not tamper with the essential plot and characterizations in Porgy and Bess. Nevertheless, she had several ideas about how to present the residents of Catfish Row in a more favorable light. She conceived her production of Porgy and Bess as a celebration of the lives of Charleston-based Gullahs, an African American community believed to be Angolan in origin. As critic Kenneth Herman noted in the Los Angeles Times, “Clarke … fleshed out the opera’s Gullah context, using that culture’s integrity to compensate for some of the lead characters’ moral defects. She … also made certain the cast knows how to pronounce Gullah dialect, which the opera’s libretto employs.”
Clarke was well aware that she was making history both by serving as director of a large-scale production and by her artistic decisions about the show. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I want African Americans who come to see the opera to be proud that an African American is directing … and to recognize the people on stage. I wanted to draw a community which we could find today: It could be any poor community, but one with pride.” She expanded upon this philosophy in Opera News, “In my production, everybody works. Everybody has some type of job. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to be slovenly or ignorant.”
Clarke’s staging of Porgy and Bess toured several major American cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Minneapolis. It also played engagements in Japan and at Italy’s famed La Scala opera house in Milan. Clarke received a Tony Award for her work on Porgy and Bess and has since kept a full schedule in New York City and elsewhere, choreographing various plays and musicals. Through her successes, she is paving the way for other talented artists. “Blacks and women have been locked out of directing major productions for too long. It’s time for us not only to tell our stories but to direct them.”
Essence, August 1995, p. 56.
Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1995, p. 46; June 1, 1995, p. Fl.
Opera News, January 21, 1995, pp. 12-16.
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 5, 1995, p. Dl.
San Francisco Examiner, April 30, 1995, p. M10.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 23, 1995, p. Fl; April 28, 1995, p. E4.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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