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Introducing a New Series: The Past and Future of Porgy and Bess

Despite being among the most prominent operas of the twentieth century, and perhaps the Gershwin brothers’ most monumental achievement, Porgy and Bess occupies an uneasy place in US musical history. In this series, Managing Editor Andrew S. Kohler, Ph.D. and blog team leader Kai West explore the opera’s complex and at times problematic representations of race, gender, disability, and class, connecting Porgy and Bess to today’s conversations about social justice.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935), a collaboration with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, contains many of the Gershwins’ most beloved numbers: “My Man’s Gone Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” Even those unfamiliar with the opera will know the evocative lullaby “Summertime,” one of the most frequently covered songs in popular music history. Porgy and Bess has been adapted and reimagined numerous times, notably the 1959 film directed by Otto Preminger and the 2011 Broadway adaptation starring Audra McDonald. The 2019 Metropolitan Opera cast—using the Gershwin Initiative’s score, edited by legendary musicologist Wayne D. Shirley—won a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. Despite its popularity, however, the work has always been controversial for its depiction of Black life in America by non-Black creators.

Porgy and Bess tells the story of a Black community in the Jim Crow era living in an impoverished tenement called Catfish Row (based on a real place) on the docks of Charleston, South Carolina. The opera centers on a disabled beggar, Porgy, who falls in love with Bess, a woman with a tragic history of drug addiction. The two come together only when Bess’s abusive partner, Crown, becomes a fugitive after murdering a man during a game of dice. As they are both outsiders, Bess and Porgy find solace in each other: she gives up drugs and the community begins to accept her, while she brightens his lonely life. Their newfound happiness, however, does not last. Crown kidnaps and assaults Bess during a picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, and when he comes for her again, Porgy intercepts and murders him. After Porgy is jailed for refusing to identify Crown’s body, the Mephistophelean drug dealer Sporting Life preys upon the vulnerable Bess, manipulating her into believing Porgy is gone for good. In a devastating moment, Bess relapses on “happy dust” (cocaine) and follows Sporting Life to New York City, where he intends to be her pimp. Porgy returns from jail a week later to find Bess gone, and in a finale tinged with both hope and sorrow, he sets off after her in his goat cart.

The original inspiration for the character of Porgy was Samuel Smalls (1889–1924), who did indeed get around Charleston in a goat cart. In 1925, Charleston-born author DuBose Heyward published his novel Porgy, stemming from an incident in Smalls’s life. George Gershwin read the novel in 1926 and approached DuBose about turning it into an opera. Meanwhile, DuBose’s wife Dorothy envisioned it as a play. Her skillful adaptation for the stage, made with her husband’s input on later drafts, resulted in a successful run on Broadway in 1927. Late in 1933, George and DuBose began work on the operatic version. DuBose fashioned the libretto from the play, with key contributions from George’s brother and frequent collaborator Ira Gershwin. Porgy and Bess premiered for a tryout run in Boston on September 30, 1935, and opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater a week later.

The Heywards crafted a compelling story with characters of great depth, yet they also presented a view of Southern Black life filtered through their Whiteness (read these posts about DuBose and his mother, Jane). Similarly, George’s score draws heavily on Black American musical vocabularies of spirituals, blues, and jazz, blending them with Tin Pan Alley songwriting, Broadway musical theater, and European operatic traditions. Debates about cultural authenticity have hounded the opera since its premiere, being a story about a marginalized community from the perspective of outsiders who led substantially more privileged lives than the residents of Catfish Row. As musicologist Naomi André has explained, the opera not only contains “multiple representations of black people with gendered and racialized identities,” but also “reveals things about whiteness and Jewishness.” Despite their great successes during their lifetimes, the fact that the Gershwin brothers were children of Russian Jewish immigrants kept them from being seen universally as White in the 1930s, which adds a layer of complexity to the racial identities and cultural meanings circulating through the opera.

Whenever there is a new production of Porgy and Bess, a slew of articles and reviews pop up in its wake, rekindling ongoing debates about the opera’s fraught racial politics. Commentators tend to ask whether the work perpetuates essentialist stereotypes. Do its White and Jewish American authors steal and deform Black cultural expression, or celebrate and take inspiration from it? Put more bluntly, it often boils down to “Is Porgy and Bess racist?” But this question can be reductive. As Naomi André has said: “Too frequently, it seems that the issues have been framed around dichotomous inquiry […] I find this binary construction to be rather unhelpful because it feels like a weak assessment of the situation.” Indeed, this large and complex opera contains both problematic and progressive elements, to which facile labels are ill-suited. In his best-selling How To Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi proposes that “‘[r]acist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment” (23). This flexible theory can apply to works of art as well as to people.

Although the opera contains stereotypical elements in its depictions of Blackness, it also presents opportunities to transcend these limitations and reflect on the social realities they represent. This speaks to the resilience not only of the opera’s score and story, but also of the Black artists who commit to performing a work that demands ensemble virtuosity, stylistic nuance, and vocal stamina. The score has proven to be among the most widely performed and recorded of the last century, including celebrated adaptations and interpretations by such artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, and Pearl Bailey. That said, Porgy and Bess seems continually to pose questions that demand critical attention. In his penetrating interpretation of the work, Black author and activist James Baldwin noted in 1959 that its characters “keep reminding one, most forcefully, of a real Catfish Row, real agony, real despair, and real love,” a story that too often “no one wants to hear” (619). And though this particular story is American, its social realities resonate beyond the United States. For example, the Cape Town Opera’s 2009 production moved Catfish Row to apartheid South Africa in the 1970s . Soprano Lisa Daltirus, who sang Bess, echoed Baldwin in an interview for The Times, London: “I think we’ve got a little jaded in the US with Porgy and Bess. A lot of people just think that this is a show that is lovely to listen to and happened way back when. They’re not thinking that you can still find places where this is real. And if we’re not careful we could be right back there.”

Inspired by the words of Baldwin and Daltirus, our goal in this ongoing series is to explore Porgy and Bess from numerous perspectives, considering the themes and challenges that it has raised throughout its 86-year history. Over the past five years, we at the Gershwin Initiative have spent countless hours reckoning with the opera in many ways: scrutinizing its sources, discussing it with colleagues, engaging with performers, pursuing our own research questions, and hosting a symposium titled “Confronting Porgy and Bess” in conjunction with the University of Michigan’s 2018 concert performance of Wayne Shirley’s edition. This series aims to illuminate how the opera’s issues of representation remain vital in today’s cultural climate. We’ll present posts written by Andy and Kai, as well as exciting contributions by guest authors, covering a range of topics that include the role of White society in relation to Catfish Row, intersections of gender and disability, the language of the libretto, the work’s longstanding racial casting requirement, and the real Gullah Geechee culture that the opera depicts. We believe that Porgy and Bess is not only a powerful and moving work, but also—if productions allow it to be—a means of confronting the prejudices of American society, issues that remain as urgent today as they were when the novel Porgy was first published.

 

A Note on Capitalization: We have chosen for this series to follow the convention of capitalizing “Black” and “White” in the context of racial identities based on the practice of Ibram X. Kendi and Eve L. Ewing, among others. We do not, however, alter capitalization in quotations that follow a different practice.

 

Further Reading

Allen, Ray. “An American Folk Opera? Triangulating Folkness, Blackness, and Americaness in Gershwin and Heyward’s Porgy and Bess.” The Journal of American Folklore 117, no. 465 (Summer 2004): 243–61.

André, Naomi. Black Opera. History, Power, Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.

André, Naomi, “Complexities in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: Historical and Performing Contexts.” In The Cambridge Companion to Gershwin, edited by Anna Harwell Celenza, 182–96. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

André, Naomi, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor, eds. Blackness in Opera. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Baldwin, James. “On Catfish Row: ‘Porgy and Bess’ in the Movies.” In James Baldwin: Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998: 616–21. (Originally published in Commentary Magazine, 1959.)

Brooks, Daphne A. “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing”: (Re)Covering Black Womanhood in Porgy and Bess.” Daedalus 150, no. 1 (Winter 2021): 98–117. 

“Cape Town Opera brings Porgy and Bess to Europe—the only opera company in South Africa is on the road to Britain with a Porgy and Bess set in the depths of apartheid.” The Times, London, October 16, 2009.

Crawford, Richard. “It Ain’t Necessarily Soul: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as a Symbol.” Anuario Interamericano De Investigacion Musical 8 (1972): 17–38. 

Crawford, Richard. “Where Did Porgy and Bess Come From?” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36, no. 4 (Spring 2006): 697–734. 

Heyward, Dorothy, and DuBose Heyward. Porgy: A Play in Four Acts. New York: Doubleday, 1928.

Heyward, DuBose. Porgy. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001.

Kendi, Ibram. How To Be an Antiracist. New York: One World, 2019.

Noonan, Ellen. The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Works. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

1 Comment
  • Sue Neimoyer on June 11, 2021

    I’ll be excited to read this series, given an in-depth exchange I had with a colleague this week at the SAM conference. Thanks for this!

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