Last week I found out Porgy And Bess is coming to Broadway.
I’m very excited.
Porgy And Bess, based on the 1925 novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, is about a crippled street beggar in Charleston, South Carolina and the woman he falls in love with. Bess is addicted to drugs and is already with Crown, the baddest dude in Catfish Row. That doesn’t stop the romance between Porgy and Bess.
The book was turned into an opera in 1935 with lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin, and music by George Gershwin. The story became a feature film in 1959 starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandrige, Sammy Davis. Jr., Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll.
I based my M.A. thesis on the book the movie, examining masculinity and the idea of the black bad man as Heyward’s inspiration for the story.
There’s a lot to be said for the progressiveness of the opera. It was one of the first American shows to incorporate black and European classical music.
The story of the people behind it is equally fascinating. Heyward was from an aristocratic white Southern family, and had a curiosity (bordering on envy, which I argued in my thesis) for the blacks he saw in Charleston. He wrote a book about them and teamed up with the Gershwins, two Jews from New York, to conceive an opera based around this story using black music and starring black actors. It was a great example of American racial and regional diversity.
On the other hand..
The novel and opera were conceived and written in pre-Civil Rights America. The movie came before the movement’s peak. They all portrayed racial stereotypes that were common and acceptable in those times. The story about a crippled black street beggar who sings, “I got plenty o’ nuttin’ and nuttin’ is plenty for me,” along with the violence, drug use and misogyny in a story about poor black characters didn’t play well to some audiences back then and, in its original form, wouldn’t play well to audiences now.
This production will star Tony Winner Audra MacDonald and comedian David Alan Grier. There will be shows in August at the American Repertory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then the production moves to Broadway where previews will begin on December 17. It will open on January 12, 2012.
There have been many other stage and screen productions of Porgy and Bess. This production is called a “re-imagining” of the opera, but there aren’t too many other details about it. I’m very excited to see how this American classic, that I spent so much time with a few years ago, is updated for modern audiences.