Pulitzer Prize winner Suzi-Lori Parks’ tenable adaptation of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess premiered at the Detroit Opera House. What was Gershwin thinking with his spectacle? Poor, violent, cocaine-sniffing black folk sing diction-perfect opera, while dancing happy jitterbug jubilations on raggedy Catfish Row. However superb her vision may be, Parks’ adaptation does little to remove the shameful reality of Gershwin’s musical. The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is an ambiguous operatic jambalaya of racial stereotypes and comedy and tragedy and song and dance.
Porgy and Bess is the timeless American tale of life and love and sacrifice within the downtrodden corridors of a fictitious black tenement called Catfish Row. Porgy is a poor, indolent beggar. Bess is a two-timing Jezebel addicted to fast-living, booze, “happy-dust,” and a low-life dockworker named Crown. Porgy sets about the manly business of rescuing Bess from Crown, and an opportunistic drug dealer named Sportin’ Life. After a bad game of dice, Crown kills a man in cold blood and takes off into hiding. Bess, his woman, decides to stay and eventually falls in love with Porgy. Subsequently, Crown returns to claim his woman and does so at an island picnic. He steals Bess away but she eventually returns to Catfish Row broken and ill. Porgy nurses her back to health, a hurricane destroys the fishing village, Crown returns to claim Bess, Porgy kills Crown and Bess deserts Porgy to run away with no-good Sportin’ Life. Porgy sets off to find his woman Bess.
There are three ways to consider this musical: inspiration, imagination, and production. The production of Parks’ The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is nothing less than superior. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design is majestic; Christopher Akerlind’s lighting added depth and emotion. Nathaniel Stampley’s Porgy is purely dignified and justly proud. Alicia Hall Moran’s portrayal of Bess left me feeling ambivalent at various moments during the play. I loved her salacious portrayal of a troubled woman distressed among the seedy men she attracts versus the compassionate man she needs, but there were other moments where Moran’s talent truly resonated and delivered the interminable anguish of Bess. In numbers like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” or the passionate “I Loves You, Porgy,” Moran’s dissonant voice is rightly dark and morose, a rich accompaniment to Stampley’s sonorous proclamations of both love and pain. Sumayya Ali and David Hughey (Clara and Jake) also do a marvelous rendition of “Summertime.” Overall, the performance and production of Suzi-Lori Parks’ The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was superbly executed.
As for Gershwin’s imaginative depiction of black life in 1920s Charleston, South Carolina, Porgy, shiftless and sentimental, and Bess, the ultimate tragic mulatto, left me unsettled and confused and unable to ignore the racist elements which have haunted Gershwin’s piece since its inception. I arrived thirty minutes before curtains to make sure I would get to my seat in time to relax and collect snacks. I noticed that most theatergoers were white. I’d never seen so many white people showing up to a black theatre production. So, then, the question sat on my mind for the rest of the night: what is it about this particular black-cast production that would command so much white attention? Could it be A. Gershwin’s brilliant synthesis of Euro-American musical elements with American jazz and black musical traditions? B. Gershwin’s cunning mockery of black life on Catfish Row – impoverished but carefree black folk, with their violent and backwards lifestyles shot-through with cheap whiskey, illicit behaviors and drug abuse? C. The insane spectacle of seeing poor black folk expressing their anguish and frustrations singing diction-perfect opera over sophisticated orchestral arrangements? D. All of the Above. What makes The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess– a black production – so seductive to white audiences?
Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, appearing on a Chicago television talk-show with Porgy and Bess film director, Otto Preminger, suggested that Gershwin’s musical “represents the ‘exotic’ for the dominant white culture in America, with all the suggestion of titillation that that implies….whites’ tendency to use aspects of black culture for vicarious thrill.””
The inspiration for Porgy and Bess began with DuBose Heyward’s publication of a novella about black life on Catfish Row. A few years before the release of his book, Heyward came across a newspaper article about a man named Samuel Smalls, a cripple with a goat cart, charged with aggravated assault – attempting to shoot his alleged lover, Maggie Barnes. Heyward clipped the article with intentions to write what he called a Negro novel. By 1925 he published Porgy, and the following year the book caught the attention of Gershwin and the two men set about the business of bringing Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess musical to production.
In a 1925 article submitted to The Bookman literary journal, Heyward wrote in “The New Note in Southern Literature” that the Southern writer’s duty to “good taste…took the Negro’s sense of humor as a keynote, caricatured it beyond recognition, and produced a comedian so detached from life that he could be laughed at heartily without the least disloyalty to the taboo.” Gershwin visited Heyward in Charleston anxious to interact with local blacks, “hear some spirituals and perhaps go to a colored café or two if there are any.”
During an interview, legendary pianist Duke Ellington agreed with white critic Edward Morrow that “the times are here to debunk such tripe as Gershwin’s lamp-black Negroisms.” Black scholar and cultural critic Harold Cruse called Porgy and Bess “the most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.” Harry Belafonte refused to take part in the Preminger’s 1959 film version. Rudi Blesh, a white jazz critic, wrote “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is not Negro opera despite a Negro cast, a liberal use of artificial coloration, and the inclusion of some street cries.” Many critics simply noted the musical’s lack of cultural authenticity: poor black folk don’t talk and sing like that. One contemporary critic suggested that Porgy and Bess “was concocted for white folk.” The responses to the racist elements in Porgy and Bess continue to proliferate.
So there it is in black and white. But at the end of the day The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a part of American history, like it or not, an indelible stamp that will always find an audience. It is here to stay. And, however we chose to interpret Gershwin’s motives and intentions this particularly splendid production deserves our undivided attention.