Saturday, June 23, 2018
Stage

'Porgy and Bess' opens at Straz with beloved music, updated book

No American opera has been performed as often as Porgy and Bess. But it has not been a universally loved story.

Actor Sidney Poitier initially refused the title role in MGM's 1959 film version, saying the material was "not complimentary to black people." W.E.B. DuBois, a leading American intellectual and co-founder of the NAACP, had misgivings as well.

On the other hand, such renowned black musicians as Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet embraced its music. They found George and Ira Gershwin's irresistible melodies and poignant themes to be fertile ground for their own expressions and improvisations.

Wonderful music — are there better examples of the Great American Songbook than Summertime or Bess, You Is My Woman? Powerful story, too — a woman caught between two loves; a violent death; social pressure. Fate itself.

Surely, it's the love of the music that made the strongest case for updating the story. Tampa Bay area audiences will be able to judge the outcome this week when The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess plays the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on Tuesday through Jan. 19.

Still, what are we to make of those racial stereotypes?

One main character, Sportin' Life, can be seen as every racist's idea of the "worthless Negro" — irresponsible, high-spirited, sex-driven, duplicitous. Beautiful Bess is a drug addict who sleeps with men without benefit of marriage. Catfish Row, the South Carolina slum where the action takes place, is definitely ghetto.

These were some of the issues that confronted the creative team — all people of color — invited by the Gershwin estate to rework and redefine Porgy and Bess for today's Broadway stage.

There was the challenge, of course, of evolving a 75-year-old opera into a contemporary musical without losing the integrity of the original. Costumes, dancing, sets and stagecraft — all had to be brought up to current audience expectations. Lingering over all, however, was the question: How much of the story, compelling as it may be, depended upon cardboard versions of impoverished African-Americans in the 1920s?

It's a question familiar to any minority group, especially when the story has been written by someone not in that group. Married couple DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, authors of the novel and play from which the opera derives, were white South Carolinians. While many people, blacks included, appreciated the care that the Heywards and later the Gershwins took with the story, there were inevitable shortcomings.

Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer-winning playwright who updated the book for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, says she did not start with any preconceived notions.

"I hadn't ever really given it much thought because, like you, I knew the songs, or some of them. I'd never seen it," she said in a phone interview from upstate New York. "But I didn't start my work by reading what people thought about it. I just sat down with the libretto in my lap, turned on the music and said, wow, this could be really fun. For me it was like, how do I make the book as incredibly awesome as the music is? Using the music as my guide, I sort of went from there."

Eventually, though, Parks realized she wanted to create a more intimate, fully realized view of the characters.

"While the original opera triumphs on so many levels, I feel the writing sometimes suffers from what I call 'a shortcoming of understanding,' " she wrote in a program note for the production.

"There are times in all of our lives when, regardless of who we are, we experience shortcomings of understanding. In DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and the Gershwins' original, there's a lot of love and a lot of effort made to understand the people of Catfish Row. In turn, I've got love and respect for their work, but in some ways I feel it falls short in the creation of fully realized characters."

Parks did not see her script-doctoring as a political act; it was just a renovation of the play. She looked for dramatic nuances that might have been overlooked in the original but could be expanded or altered to give new context to the characters.

As it turned out, it didn't take a heavy hand for Parks to make a big difference — some streamlining here, a few words added there. "Modest additions," she calls them, "that dovetail beautifully with the music, that accumulate over the course of an evening to give us a beautiful portrait of these people."

One of Porgy's most troublesome songs is I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'. It's easy to mistake the song for a minstrel tune and a parody of culture. "I'm a poor black man and I don't care 'cause I'm happy," Park explained.

Parks added just a few lines before the song to ensure that's not the context the audience hears it in.

As Porgy emerges from his house, "He says, 'Good morning, everybody.' They say 'You're lookin' better than good. What you been up to?' and he goes 'Nothin.'

"And they all laugh and they say, 'Nothin?'

"And he says, 'I got plenty of nothin.'

"He's not singing about being poor. He's singing about love."

Parks said she's been gratified by people who have approached after the show to say they can now sing that song without shame. And I think, "Wow, we've given it back to people."

Parks said the Gershwin estate is pleased with the new production, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

The Gershwins "wanted to celebrate these people. They didn't want to make caricatures, they were just limited by their time and place. That's not a crime. Nobody's calling any names."

In its way, Porgy and Bess was a watershed moment in American culture.

Its all-black cast — not white actors in blackface — was a rarity for the 1930s. When the traveling show was on its way to Washington, D.C., the cast was informed that because Washington was a segregated city, no black people would be admitted to the show. The cast said it would refuse to perform. A compromise was offered: Blacks could attend one of two matinees, on a Wednesday or a Saturday. The cast did not back down. The theater manager then suggested that blacks could sit in the uppermost balcony for any performance. Still the cast refused.

The show went on only when the management agreed to let black people attend any performance and sit wherever they liked. It was the first time that black and white audiences sat side by side in the nation's capital.

Historian and scholar Henry Louis Gates acknowledges his change of heart about Porgy and Bess in remarks he wrote for a panel discussion at Harvard University in July 2011, shortly before the current production's world premiere at American Repertory Theater.

"The story was a relic of an ugly past — not the real past of African-Americans, but rather the Hollywood-imagined past of black folks. The coke fiends, the pimps, the broken black man at the center of the film — no thank you.

"I don't share those views anymore, and now I see a character like Sportin' Life, who used to make my skin crawl, as being in a long line of tricksters — a figure whose performance of duplicity, whose 'shuckin' and jivin' ' is very much part of the African-American literary tradition, and even part of a history of resistance."

Comments
On stage this week: Freefall Theatre’s ‘The Musical of Musicals,’ Jay Pharoah

On stage this week: Freefall Theatre’s ‘The Musical of Musicals,’ Jay Pharoah

SENDUP: MUSICAL OF MUSICALSFive composers, a talented cast, choreography by Cheryl Lee and music directed by Michael Raabe — that’s Freefall Theatre’s recipe for a laugh-filled, season-ending summer musical, appropriately titled The Musical of Musica...
Published: 06/20/18
Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

Jobsite’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ should be more gripping than it is

TAMPA — The virtues of Dancing at Lughnasa, with which Jobsite Theater closes its season, are many. This drama by the celebrated Brian Friel opened in 1990 to much acclaim. It captures a family’s joys and sadnesses, and the quickness with which one s...
Published: 06/19/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/15/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/16/18
Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

GULFPORT — Brianna Melton is as serious a ballet student as they come.By her junior year at St. Petersburg High’s International Baccalaureate program, she had already spent four summers training with ballet companies across the country and had narrow...
Published: 06/14/18
What’s on stage: The Illusionists, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,’ G. David Howard

What’s on stage: The Illusionists, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa,’ G. David Howard

OPENING: DANCING AT LUGHNASAIrish playwright Brian Friel, who died in 2015 at 86, won’t be traveling anymore. But I’ll bet he packed a tidy suitcase. Dancing at Lughnasa, Jobsite Theater’s season closer, manages to address a lot of issues: race, reli...
Published: 06/13/18
Ruth Eckerd Hall tees up comedy, romance and Kristin Chenoweth for 2018-19 Broadway season

Ruth Eckerd Hall tees up comedy, romance and Kristin Chenoweth for 2018-19 Broadway season

Ruth Eckerd Hall rolls out a new lineup of musicals for its 2018-19 season, a mix of comedy, favorite musicals and romance."For the last 35 years, Broadway has always been a staple at Ruth Eckerd Hall," chief executive officer Zev Buffman said in a p...
Published: 06/12/18
A tense night at the Tony Awards ends in euphoria for Largo doctor Jeffrey Grove

A tense night at the Tony Awards ends in euphoria for Largo doctor Jeffrey Grove

Dr. Jeffrey Grove sat three-quarters of the way back from the stage at Radio City Music Hall, waiting for his moment. The Largo physician made the trip with family to New York for Sunday’s Tony Awards, where he hoped to see his investment in O...
Published: 06/11/18
Neal Boyd, ‘America’s Got Talent’ winner, dies at 42

Neal Boyd, ‘America’s Got Talent’ winner, dies at 42

SIKESTON, Mo. — Neal Boyd, an opera singer who won America’s Got Talent and dabbled in Missouri politics, has died. Scott County Coroner Scott Amick says Boyd died around 6 p.m. Sunday at his mother’s house in Sikeston. He was 42. Amick says Boyd had...
Published: 06/11/18
Parkland drama teens bring down the house with stirring performance at Tony Awards

Parkland drama teens bring down the house with stirring performance at Tony Awards

Members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s drama team stole the show at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards Sunday night.The performance brought the crowd— many of whom were wiping tears from their eyes— to its collective feet at the Radio City Music ...
Published: 06/11/18