MIAMI – George Royston picked up an old playbill of Porgy and Bess. He looked down and started to whistle a tune, ‘Honey Man! Here Come de Honey Man.’ He wasn’t really reading anything out of the bill, which presented a collection of faded Broadway pictures and credits. It was just his way of remembering what he used to do.
Today, Royston, 97, lives in Cutler Bay with his son, Al, 63. The home is laden with albums and mementos of those days, when he played the role of honey man in what is now considered an iconic American play that tells the story of a disabled beggar named Porgy, who tries to rescue Bess from an abusive relationship.
The memories are as much his as they are his two sons, both of whom performed with their father during US and international tours of Porgy and Bess. The North American tour took place between 1950-1952, followed by a European tour from 1952 to 1956. (George Royston, Jr., died last March at the age of 69.)
“We toured all around the world, London, Paris, all over Europe,” George said. “We went to New York to Washington to Pittsburgh to Chicago.” During these tours, he said, he performed alongside opera singer Leontyne Price, jazz singer Cab Calloway and award-winning author and poet Maya Angelou.
“I loved being the honey man,” he said. “More than anything, I loved the pay.” While his son Al can’t quite recall how much money his father was bringing home during those years, he knows his father was making an average annual income. According to the United States Census, the average annual income in 1959 was just above $5,600.
“Black people didn’t make that type of money,” Al said. “He was able to work and feed his family.” Other than his two sons, he also had a wife, Mary, who predeceased him.
Despite George’s achievement, America in the 1950s was still America in the 1950s. Black and white tensions were reaching a tipping point as leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. among others, demanded equal rights and an end to Jim Crow laws, which held segregation firmly in place.
Ironically, it’s these same tensions that fed into the success of plays like Porgy and Bess, which provided an outlet for black expression, as well as a window for whites to view blacks in a new light. As Al explained, up until Porgy and Bess, Americans hadn’t seen blacks sing opera. This play also infused Negro spirituals with well-crafted jazz compositions of George Gershwin. Al said, “People were astonished by the whole thing.”
Talent and success couldn’t provide them access beyond the limitations of their skin color. At least, not in America.
“When you lived outside of the US, in France and Holland, people were just in love with us,” Al said. “But back in the United States it was still like ‘you can’t eat at this restaurant.’”
George hadn’t planned to end up on Broadway. Born and raised in Leavenworth, Kan., he, well known for his singing voice, was recruited by the Utica Jubilee singers. The singing group, which was out of Mississippi, toured the country before snagging a recording contract with the National Broadcasting Company, which brought the group to New York. (Back then, radio, not TV, was the main form of entertainment). They had arrived.
Soon, he linked up with the famed New York City Hall Johnson Negro Choir, which was coveted as the first professional group to capture the essence of post-slavery Negro spirituals.
“One of the great Negro musical conductors of all time,” George said speaking of Johnson, who had already been recognized for producing Run Little Chillun, (1943) the first black folk opera on Broadway. “The day I auditioned for Hall Johnson was the day he gave me the lead in the choir for an upcoming show,” George said. Johnson was also serving as the choir director of Porgy and Bess.
As the world emerged into the 1960s, consumers began changing.
“There were a number of plays that were more melodic and operatic, more musical,” Al said. He points out the 1959 musical The Sound of Music (music by Richard Rodger and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) as a typical example of the new direction Broadway was taking. “Plus, you had the growth of TV and movies that were breaking racial barriers. No one really wanted the Negro spiritual.”
George had spent nearly two decades crafting his voice in this genre. Following the run of Porgy and Bess George and his sons joined Harold Arlen’s Free and Easy Blues Opera, which featured Quincy Jones and his orchestra. The play was about a bad love affair set around a casino in Louisiana in the late 1800s. The all-black cast wore top hats and tailcoats.
In hopes that the show would be better received outside of the US, the play held a soft opening in Amsterdam on Dec. 15, 1959. One month later, it officially debuted in Paris. Despite positive reviews, attendance was sparse. The tour was cut short in Belgium in its third month.
“It was not the ‘50s; it was the ‘60s now,” Al said. “Show biz isn’t very kind.”