History, Romance, and Controversy at the Winspear: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
by Jayne Herring
The story of Porgy and Bess is a beautiful and sad story of love, abuse, drugs, poverty, sex, and community. The history of the musical “Porgy and Bess” is just as fascinating and tumultuous. Written by a white Jewish composer in 1935, Porgy was originally a full-length opera infusing blues and spirituals originating in the African-American community (never done before, as of yet not done since), and “Arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century” (NYTimes 2012). And lucky us, the National tour of the latest revival is playing at the Winspear Opera House through December 22nd.
This production, winner of the 2012 Tony for Best Revival, is much less operatic and abrasive than the original, more digestible to our PC sensibilities and modern ears perhaps. There are many critics who passionately disagree with the changes, but that’s nothing new for controversial Porgy. When it was written in the 1930’s, when it was still common for black characters to be portrayed by white actors in blackface, Porgy daringly and progressively featured a cast of classically trained African-American singers, giving many a launching pad for successful careers.
However the original libretto was littered with what are now considered racial slurs in an effort to realistically portray life in a southern African-American community. Initially praised, attitudes turned as the civil rights movement took hold of the country in the 40’s and 50’s and the language and character portrayals were considered offensive. (Yet, interestingly, while facing criticisms in the states at this time, it was accepted enthusiastically by audiences in Europe and the Soviet Union, despite fears it would incite anti-American Cold War propaganda.) With the passage of time, audiences at home once again warmed to Porgy as a rich depiction of African American history, especially when the Houston Grand Opera presented a production of the full-length opera in 1976 that initially caused more debates but resulted in new acclaim and a wider fan base.
Much of the cast we see here in Dallas is carried over from Broadway and the talent is apparent even if occasionally misused. If you don’t see it for the history or the passionate love story, then by all means see it for the music. Gershwin classics “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing”, and “Summertime” (which has been recorded over 25,000 times) all come from Porgy. I know I wasn’t the only one quietly singing along.
Inspired by a novel called “Porgy” about a crippled beggar seen around Charleston, it was the only opera Geroge Gerwshin wrote before succumbing to a brain tumor at the age of 38. The Dallas Arts District has had some wonderful and timely offerings lately to stoke conversations on race relations in our communities. Dallas Theater Center’s productions of Clybourne Park and A Raisin in the Sun (a Broadway revival version of which opens this spring with Denzel Washington) kicked off the season at the Wyly, and now with this touring production of Porgy at the Winspear we travel back almost a century to watch as Bess tries to escape her scandalous past, and our country confronts ours.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is presented by the AT&T Performing Arts Center at the Winspear Opera House as part of the Lexus Broadway Series. For tickets and information, visit http://www.attpac.org/on-sale/2013/porgy-and-bess/