Page 4 of 4
Even now, though, an operatic Porgy and Bess is a sometime thing. Just in the past few years, not even counting this new Porgy and Bess, there have been at least a half dozen productions ranging from full-scale opera to concert presentations to stripped-down chamber renderings. And it hardly needs to be pointed out that from the beginning, many of the score’s individual numbers, including “Summertime,” have enjoyed a double life as both arias and out-of-context pop songs; even though jazz singers and instrumentalists have largely been the ones keeping those songs alive through the years, younger people are more likely to know “Summertime” from having heard Fantasia sing it on American Idol, or “I Loves You, Porgy” from (God help us) Christina Aguilera’s heaving assault on it at the Grammys a few years ago.
Broadway always seems abuzz about something below the general public’s radar, however, even if it’s only how much Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would ultimately cost to produce, and how many actors and stagehands it would wound. This time, the question actually being pondered following The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess’s debut was one perhaps bettersuited to a semiology seminar: does one work of art ever simply replace another? Though Porgy and Bess’ survival as an opera seems assured no matter how many other ways it’s done, in the case of Heyward’s original novel, sadly, the answer is yes; even if racial politics and evolving literary taste hadn’t eventually turned against it, Porgy was relegated to oblivion as a mere source on the opera’s opening night.
Reading it today, one is immediately struck by how different it is from such novels of the same period as Edna Ferber’s Show Boat and Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, melodramas whose white authors addressed what was still referred to as “the race problem” by way of miscegenation and “passing”—concerns one doubts were foremost in the minds of most black Americans then. Heyward attempted something riskier. Though often dismissed as a minor Southern regionalist, he was at least intuitively a naturalist, a literary Darwinist in the lineage of Zola and Dreiser. With Porgy, he sought to present a picture of Southern Negro life that was as realistic emotionally and psychologically as it was in its exterior details, and this meant entering the minds of people entirely unlike himself. But as the son of a woman poet who earned a meager living lecturing on the folklore of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands (today, she might be extolled as a “storyteller” and funded by the NEA). Heyward grew up steeped in a culture whose African retentions made it alien even to most black Americans, and on some level, he may have felt a bond with his disabled title character—recovering from polio as a teenager, he worked as a cotton counter on the Charleston docks, where he too must have gazed enviously at the black stevedores, admiring “the panther-like flow of enormous muscle power under absolute control,” as Porgy sees it.
Porgy contains psychological insights worthy of Richard Wright, as when Bess falls sick and Porgy mulls over the advantages and shortcomings of “the white man’s religion” (Christian prayer), “the white man’s science” (hospitalization), and “the old ways” (conjure), unable to summon up faith in any of them. The novel’s admirers among black writers included Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, who called it “the best novel by a white about Negroes.” It’s well worth reading today, with the proviso that the mix of Gullah dialect and proto-Ebonics spoken by its characters (“buckra” for white man, for example) takes some getting used to, especially juxtaposed with Heyward’s poetic omniscient narration.
In an interview soon after the current production opened on Broadway, Audra McDonald said she carries a dog-eared copy of the novel everywhere and reads a passage from it every night before going on stage; and the cheek scar she insisted on to establish from the start that her character is damaged goods comes straight from the Heywards’ forgotten stage play. Seeing this Porgy and Bess a second time, last winter in New York, I found myself wondering if Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks had stolen a glance at Heyward, too. A brutal scene near the end, in which the white cops throw Porgy and his clanging leg brace roughly to the floor, is in no other production I know of, but it’s similar to a passage in the novel where the cops callously hoist Porgy in their paddywagon “wagon, goat, and man.”
From today’s vantage point, the beauty of Heyward’s book for Porgy and Bess is that in conjunction with an unlikely love story that ends tragically, it also tells the story of a largely self-sufficient, hard-working black community—albeit one from which all four major characters (Porgy, Bess, Crown, and Sportin’ Life) remain outsiders for various reasons, which is where the dramatic tension comes in. An important but overlooked subplot—and a key to Bess’s enigmatic character—is her unspoken desire to be accepted by the proper women of Catfish Row and her gradual acceptance as one of them, climaxed by the moment when the young mother Clara, before rushing into the storm to join her dead husband, hands her baby over to Bess, in effect transferring the sanctity of motherhood to her (along with “Summertime,” the aria we heard Clara singing to open the show). McDonald plays the scene beautifully, with a stunned gravity that lets us absorb its full importance.
From a dramatic standpoint, the real problem confronting this production—had Paulus and Parks been able to express it without defaming Heyward—was that McDonald, for whom the show is largely a star vehicle, was off stage for the final fifteen minutes. Instead of bringing her back for a feel-good ending, the solution proved to be giving her a final scene she could throw herself into with such physical abandon that it stays with you after she’s left: she still contemptuously tosses the happy dust David Allen Grier’s Sportin’ Life gives her, but then drops desperately to her knees to snort it off the floor after he’s confidently sashayed away. McDonald has large, vivid features she knows how to use to register slight shifts of emotion as well as unambiguous attraction or alarm; the eye goes to her even when she’s standing still and not singing or speaking, and when she delivers the title phrase of “I Loves You, Porgy” in an italicized, faster-than-tempo rush, so does the heart.
Plenty to find fault with remains in the new production. Parks’s new book seems a little absent-minded; instead of strangling Crown with his bare hands, as in most productions, Porgy kills him with a knife, so what was the point of keeping the scene in which Sportin’ Life observes that Porgy has an awfully strong grip for a cripple? And Norm Lewis, although he certainly looks like we think Porgy should, with his grey whiskers and sullen dignity and painful-to-watch swivel as he propels himself from spot to spot with his cane, can’t match McDonald vocally. Happily, the male cast member who can, and does, is Phillip Boykin as Crown; when he grabs McDonald by the shoulders on Kittawah Island, she knows he’s no good for her and so do we, but their voices fill the theater so mellifluously it’s as if they’ve been drawn together by natural selection.
The PS Classics cast album is disappointing, exposing vocal shortcomings disguised by superb acting in the theater. On stage, the show is entertaining even at its most maddening. Originally scheduled to play only through June, it’s proven appealing enough to audiences (including the racially mixed one I saw it with at the Richard Rodgers, which clearly loved it) that it’s been held over at least through September, with rumors of a national tour to follow. McDonald is a heavy favorite for Best Actress in a Musical at Sunday’s Tonys, and (ironically) the show’s only real competition for Best Revival of a Musical is a lifeless production of Sondheim’s Follies that ended its limited engagement in January. With or without a Tony, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is a hit, and though I can’t speak for Sondheim, that’s a happy ending I can live with.