Wednesday, February 21, 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."

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