Nathaniel Stampley returns home for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
By Maricha Harris
Local theatergoers will have the pleasure of witnessing Milwaukee native Nathaniel Stampley perform during the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at the Skylight Music Theatre between May 17th and June 9th. While now back home from New Jersey, Stampley will be playing the “villainous” character Crown.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is an American Opera, which is based on a novel by DuBose Hayward and set in Charleston in a fictitious community known as Catfish Row. A dramatic love story, Porgy and Bess takes gazers through a journey in which Porgy—a beggar—falls in love with beautiful Bess as she navigates through and alters her scandalous life.
“I think if you see a lot a theatre, then you really need to see this production of Porgy and Bess,” said Stampley. It’s a premier at the Skylight, and it’s hardly done in the area, and it’s one of the best—arguably the best—American operas that’s ever been written. And for those who are sort of new to theatre or a little shy about seeing something you don’t know anything about, that’s even more reason to hear an incredible score by George Gershwin who’s one of the greatest American writers, composers ever,” he said.
This is not the first time Porgy and Bess is being shown in Milwaukee, and neither is this Stampley ’s first appearance in the show. In 1989, while still in high school, Stampley performed in Porgy and Bess for the Florentine Opera Company. “I was in the chorus, I was one of the younger members in the adult chorus in awe of all the talent around me. “
Returning back to the show and staring is the cast is a rewarding experience. “It’s definitely a full circle for me because it was my very first professional job, and to come back all these many years later as a guest artist is amazing,” Stampley said. “I think anytime you get to come home and perform— ya know because a lot of times what I do out east a lot of friends and other family members can’t come out to New York to see me perform—so it’s nice to be back home for an extended period of time doing what I love.”
And home is where it all started for Stampley. Growing up in the church gave Stampley his fundamental start. “I grew up in the church; my dad is a pastor and use to pastor a church in Milwaukee, and my mom is a musician and a wonderful singer. Growing up in the church I always had singing—I’m the oldest of six—and a lot of music in the house.”
Once Stampley got to middle and high school his involvement in the arts increased. “Eventually once I got to middle school and high school I really took an interest in a lot of the choirs at school and had a great introduction to classical music there. My mom was really good about exposing us to different things, different types of music. Eventually I started auditioning for the school musicals out in Whitefish Bay, and I really found that I really enjoyed it a lot.”
Stampley went on to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with bachelor’s degree of Music. Since then, he’s built a career in the arts that includes West End: The Lion King, Broadway: The Color Purple, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and The Lion King, and much many more accomplishments. He is also a proud husband of a talented dancer and father of two—a son and daughter.
The thought of seeing local talent—both Stampley and Jason McKinney who plays as Porgy are Milwaukee natives—is a great reason for Milwaukeeans to see Porgy and Bess. But if you need one more reason to see the show, take note of the story’s roots within the African American community. “You get to see this story of black people from the south, and a story that’s full of love and laughter and loss and triumph,” noted Stampley. The members of the cast are predominantly African American, and it’s been that way since the 1930s.
With the 1935’s premier of Porgy and Bess, the show pioneered social change for theatergoers with the largest all-Black cast seen on an American stage up until that point.
The 1936 tour stopped at the then segregated National Theatre in Washington, D.C., where nonwhite patrons were refused entry. Key cast members refused to perform until the theatre allowed Whites and Blacks to sit side-by-side for the first time in the theatre’s history.
Porgy and Bess brings a since of history to the community along with tremendous African American and native talent and inspiration. To those who aspire to have careers in the arts, Stampley says, “The biggest thing is learn everything. If you’re really interested in anything in the arts—whether it’s poetry, or set design or lighting, or acting or signing— learn as much as you can about whatever craft you are perusing, and don’t learn things that have just been in the last year or so. You’re never reinventing the wheel. There are a lot of artist that have put their blood sweat and tears into whatever craft you’d like to peruse, and know who these people are and how they got into [the arts].”