Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Baltimore Sun: “Anne Wiggins Brown played Bess in original 'Porgy and Bess'”

From Douglass High to singing for Gershwin, Anne Wiggins Brown played Bess in original 'Porgy and Bess'

By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Sun reporter

March 2, 2008
Nearly 73 years have passed since Baltimorean Anne Wiggins Brown, who played the role of Bess in the original production of George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess, hauntingly sang "Summertime" before an audience seated in New York's Alvin Theatre.

Broadway was a long way from Brown's girlhood home at 1501 Presstman St. She was born in Baltimore in 1912 or 1915 (there is slight variance on the exact date and month), the oldest of four daughters.

Her father was Dr. Harry Francis Brown, a physician and grandson of a slave, and her mother, Mary Allen Wiggins, whose parents were of Scottish-Irish, black and Cherokee Indian descent, sang and played piano.
As a student at the old Frederick Douglass High School on Dolphin Street, Brown studied with the legendary music teacher W. Llewellyn Wilson, who counted among his students Cab Calloway.

Through her years at Douglass, Brown had leading roles in the musicals and plays that were staged and directed annually by Wilson.

"Ms. Brown maintains she always knew she would be a performer. As a child she dreamed of becoming an actress but was discouraged by the prospect of a lifetime of roles as a domestic - the only parts offered to black women then," wrote Elizabeth Schaaf, archivist and curator at the Peabody Institute, in a 1998 article in The Sun.

"Music offered brighter prospects for Ms. Brown, who enjoyed playing her family's grand piano and listening to classical music records," Schaaf wrote.

When Brown applied to the Peabody Conservatory, she was refused entrance because of her race, so at the urging of a Baltimore benefactor, she applied to the Juilliard School of Music, and at 16, became the first black vocalist to be admitted to the school.

"We tough girls tough it out," Brown told The New York Times in a 1998 interview. "I've lived a strange kind of life - half black, half white, half isolated, half in the spotlight. Many things that I wanted as a young person for my career were denied me because of my color," she said. Full Article

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