The controversial history of the tragic romance Porgy and Bess makes you wonder if this African-American opera could work in an age when the country is run by a Harvard-educated Black president. “[In this] show about black people created entirely by white people…white composers and lyricists presented their ideas of blackness,” says New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als. First staged in 1935, with music and lyrics by the legendary George and Ira Gershwin, Porgy and Bess featured classically trained Black singers, a Broadway first. A 1952 revival starred Leontyne Price as Bess, Cab Calloway as the drug dealing Sportin’ Life, and Maya Angelou in the lesser role of Ruby. The 1959 film cast Sidney Poitier as Porgy to Dorothy Dandridge’s Bess.
But Harry Belafonte turned down the role later filled by Poitier, and Duke Ellington dissed “Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.” One of the production’s most popular tunes, “Summertime,” depicts post-slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, as a grand ol’ time (“Summertime and the living is easy/Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high”). Another song, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” makes the crippled beggar Porgy—and by proxy, African-Americans in general—sound like a happy darkie content to be poor and in the grips of white supremacist society. The community violence, drugs and poverty depicted in Porgy and Bess made the opera especially embarrassing in the Black Power era.
This makes the creative triumph of Broadway’s current The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess all the more amazing. Co-starring four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald (Raisin in the Sun) and Norm Lewis (Dreamgirls), the modern revival cuts the original four-hour opera in half, with most singing exposition replaced with dialogue by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog). Audiences most familiar with actor David Alan Grier from his 1990s sketchwork in In Living Color will be pleasantly surprised by his turn here as Sportin’ Life, his rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in particular.
Based on the 1925 novel, Porgy—written by DuBose Heyward, author of Porgy and Bess’s original libretto—the story opens in Catfish Row, with the local men drinking and gambling on a freewheeling Friday night. The tone switches when Crown (played the excellent Phillip Boykin) commits a drunken accidental murder, abandoning his lady, Bess, to avoid police. Shunned as a happy-dust addicted tramp, Bess tries seeking refuge in the community, but is only taken in by the lovestruck Porgy. The plot progresses when Crown is rediscovered hiding out on nearby Kittiwah Island, eventually challenging Porgy for Bess’s affection.
Gershwin’s music, further immortalized by jazz titan Miles Davis on his own Porgy and Bess album, soars once again with an 18-piece orchestra. Dance sequences, though few, are choreographed by the renowned Ronald K. Brown. McDonald studied classical voice as a college student at Juilliard; her voice is a wonder all throughout the play. Numbers like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon” and “I Loves You, Porgy” receive their due, with the whole cast’s operatic chops way up to par.
The real challenge of this opera-turned-musical is avoiding the minstrel-like nature of its 1930s origins. The revered Metropolitan Opera staged Porgy and Bess in 1985, and a 1976 production received both a Tony and a Grammy Award. Accolades are legion. But for Black audiences, its stereotypical portrayals and the issue of supporting white notions of Black life have dogged a wholely positive reception of the play for decades. However, Suzan-Lori Parks and director Diane Paulus humanize the residents of Catfish Row beyond all reproach, especially Bess. In a slight twist from the original opera (spoiler alert!), Bess eventually leaves South Carolina behind not solely because of a drug relapse, but to spare others in being implicated in Crown’s murder. Rather than continue to taint Catfish Row with her presence, she leaves them all behind.
Porgy and Bess wasn’t fully accepted as an official opera by the powers-that-be until the Houston Grand Opera settled the question beyond all shadow of doubt in 1976. It’s a bold move, then, to restage the whole thing as a straight play with musical numbers for a more mainstream audience. Thanks in large measure to Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks, the gamble pays off.