During the first half of the 20th century, there were no professional opportunities for black people in the mainstream arts in South Florida or most other southern cities. Those interested in the visual or performing arts had to relocate in order to establish careers.
Consider the following three examples of talented individuals who grew up in Miami and found fame elsewhere:
▪ Robert Battle, dancer and choreographer is now the artistic director of the highly acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater headquartered in New York City.
▪ Kelsey Collie remained in Washington, DC after college, established a children’s theater and retired, Professor Emeritus from Howard University’s Theater of the Arts.
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▪ Ray Aranha, a Florida A&M University graduate, actor, playwright and director toured African countries as part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s International Cultural Exchange Program in 1958.
Times have changed and opportunities in the arts are now available without regard to race, gender or creed.
Today, the accomplishments of local residents Kyaunnee Richardson, a soprano, and arts administrator Valerie Riles make us proud, particularly during the Jan. 16 production of George Gershwin’s 1935 American opera “Porgy and Bess” at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
Richardson grew up in Carol City, now within the city of Miami Gardens and will play the part of Clara in Gershwin’s acclaimed opera.
She attended Dade Christian elementary and high school, New World School of the Arts/Miami-Dade Wolfson Campus, where she graduated with a Bachelors in Music in 2012. Richardson earned a Master’s in Music from Florida State University in 2014.
Listening to Handel’s “Messiah” at age 2 inspired her to sing. She later discovered composers Meyerbeer, Gounod and Puccini. Curiosity led her to research singers Renee Fleming, Marian Anderson, Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price.
Legendary soprano Leontyne Price and baritone William Warfield starred in several productions of “Porgy and Bess.” With a libretto by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist by Ira Gershwin, the opera was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play, “Porgy,” which derived from DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.
The Arsht Center’s presentation will feature the full 70-piece South Florida Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestra Sebrina Maria Alfonso.
The dedicated crew also consists of stage director Richard Jay-Alexander, set designer Paul Tate dePoo and choreographer Ron Hutchins.
Starring Neil Nelson as Porgy, Brandie Sutton as Bess, Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life, Gwendolyn Brown as Maria, Michael Redding as Crown, Eric Shane as Jake, Simone Paulwell as Serena, and Edwina Graves as Robbins, this outstanding cast is expected to present an exciting evening.
Waiting in the wings and overseeing Arsht Center operations will be Valerie Riles, who is vice president of board and government relations. She is also serving as the center’s interim CEO and president until Johann Zietsman begins in February.
Riles returned to South Florida in 1987 after earning a bachelor’s degree in communications and media studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.. I later hired her to work at Miami’s Black Archives.
Riles worked alongside then- Executive Director Derek Davis, who later became the founding director of Broward County’s Old Dillard Museum. Together, they operated the archives and administered the rehabilitation of Overtown’s designated historic sites including the Lyric Theater, Chapman House and the Dorsey House.
Riles was Black Archives’ executive director from 2000-02. She earned a Master’s of business administration from St. Thomas University. In 2002. She joined the Miami-Dade County performing arts center while it was under construction, moving up the ranks at the $472 million, Cesar Pelli-designed center, which opened fall 2006.
The Arsht Center hosts about 400 events each year including free community events for about 60,000 children, along with AileyCamp Miami, Camp Broadway, Jazz Roots, Live at Knight, City Theatre’s Summer Shorts, the Hispanic Theatre, Miami Symphony Orchestra Festival, Flamenco Festival, free Gospel Sundays and more. Open to all, each event is an opportunity to inspire local talent to succeed.
If you go
The South Florida Symphony Orchestra will perform “Porgy and Bess” starring Neil Nelson and Brandie Sutton 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, in the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets are $39 to $204 each. www.arshtcenter.org