Porgy And Bess Controversy At The A.R.T.

By Jared Bowen

September 14, 2011


Watch the video piece that aired on September 13 on 'GBH's Greater Boston.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Earlier this week we featured the first of two stories on the American Repertory Theater's bold new adaptation of the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess. For all the excitement surrounding the production starring Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier, there's also been a fair amount of controversy. Namely when, if ever, is it appropriate to revise a classic? Looking back on it though, the show has always been dogged by controversy.

The tortured romance between Porgy and Bess rises out of a tempest: The murder Bess's lover Crown commits. The trauma sends her drunk and drug-addled soul into the eventual arms of the crippled beggar Porgy.

It's part of life in Catfish Row, a fictionalized enclave of Charleston, South Carolina where drugs and violence are pervasive.

Actor David Alan Grier plays Sportin Life in this Broadway-bound American Repertory Theater production. He's the bad seed: A pimp and drug dealer feeding Bess's drug addiction and slithering his way through town. Dangerously, he's charming too, as when he's presiding over the regular craps game.

"Like any neighborhood, any community you know that's the spooky house, that's the bad guy. That family drinks. That family goes to church. People know. You know you have that common knowledge of each other," Grier said.

It's a view of African American life in the 1930s from Porgy and Bess's white creators, George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.

From the moment George Gershwin chose to adapt DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy into an opera, there has been controversy. Controversy that he'd dare to create anything but popular music. That he'd dare write music solely for African American performers at a time when much of the country was segregated. And that he'd presume to be able to tell the story of a black community. Audra McDonald plays Bess.

"When people say P&B is racist I say no, just because I really feel that he had the best intentions when he wrote it. He wanted to get in and be inside of a community, this African American community; and show their wants, their desires, their hopes, their dreams, their fears as opposed to just the mammy coming in here," McDonald said.

When it debuted at Boston's Colonial Theatre in September 1935 and premiered on Broadway shortly after, Porgy and Bess was punctuated with pointed stereotypes and grossly derogatory terms. Adapting the opera today for the A.R.T. musical is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.

"I'm not a politically correct writer. I didn't approach it like, 'it's a racist show so I have to make it politically correct.' Not at all! It's a show with some dramatic holes, some missteps dramatically. I have to make it right. I have to flesh out the characters. All those things. I didn't go through it to sanitize the language at all," Parks said.

For decades the racist overtones in Porgy and Bess have given actors starring in the show pause.

"From the very beginning we were setting out to make sure that this is about these people. And their struggles and their story and really focusing on the dramatic story as opposed to look at all those black people up there," said McDonald. "Boy they sing well and oh they get passionate and you know and then they kill and they drink the whiskey and smoke the whatever — so I don't feel like I've had to stress about that in any way."

A scene from the A.R.T.'s production of Porgy and Bess. (Photo by Michael J. Lutch)

There is a scene where Sportin' Life is publicly shamed by Catfish Row matriarch Mariah, which troubled Parks when she reviewed the original opera.

"It's a what I call a Mammy moment, which is effective if the characters adhere to certain stereotypes. The Mammy, a large woman with the hand on the hip doing that Aunt Jemima type kind of thing," Parks said. "And then the cowering well-dressed dandy. 'Oooh, I'm scared.' I don't know any street character like Sportin' Life who would take this kind of crap from anybody. And in real life, in reality, if someone were to talk to him like that they'd be dead the next day."

"So we're fleshing out all the characters and so instead of a Mammy moment, I made a Mamma moment or a mommy moment in which I said, 'well, how could this moment work in the real world? What would Mariah have on Sportin Life that would really make him scared?' I thought, oh she knows his mother. And any tough guy we know, all tough guys, if you start saying hey I know your mother and I'm going to tell on you. Then they're like, 'oh come on don't be telling my mama what I'm up to,'" Parks said.

Then there's the controversy over changing a classic. The A.R.T. says it was the Gershwin Estate that invited changes to the show when it handpicked the theater's Artistic Director Diane Paulus to create a musical from the original opera.

"To make Porgy and Bess into more of a musical, it's about breathing, stopping, letting silence play a role. And also letting there be dialogue. Sometimes I need to add words, sometimes whole new scenes, sometimes take a new scene and turn it inside out, and make it new. Recycle it. Very green," Paulus said.

But it's these types of changes that have riled purists of the original opera who find it abhorrent that the A.R.T. would tinker with a sacred cow. Stephen Sondheim delivered the most thunderous criticism in August when, without having seen the show he wrote The New York Times "…there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting…Advertise it honestly as "Diane Paulus's Porgy and Bess. And the hell with the real one." [Read Sondheim's piece in The New York Times].

"The purists have the right if that's how they want to spend their energy. It's such a great opera and if they want to see it in its purist state, if they want to see Shakespeare done in the Globe, with bear-baiting and people who haven't bathed recently and all men on stage, I'm sure there are places that will provide that opportunity for them. Great! No sweat!" Susan-Lori Parks said.

"I've never done Shakespeare in 30 years where they didn't cut, snip, change this, get rid of that, Hamlet's speech is too long. Let's do this. That's just Ibsen, Chekov, everybody. That's what is done. Opera too," said actor David Alan Grier.

In its 76-year-history, Porgy and Bess has evolved from DuBose Heyward's novel, to a play, to the opera, to film, to the musical. After the Boston opening night, back in 1935, Gershwin immediately cut 45 minutes from the show. And two years later, after George's untimely death, Ira Gershwin also began changing the opera.

"Maybe Gershwin wasn't done with this piece when he died. Maybe like all great composers, Mozart had three endings to Don Giovanni up his sleeve and there were things that were still in motion," said Paulus. "Not to say that the work we have by Gershwin isn't a masterpiece. It is. But then there was potential in there that was being wrestled with."

"People have been trying to put it in a box for all these years, I don't mean put it away, but shove it into you know: It's an opera, it's a musical, it's — I think, it just continues to defy. It's this sort of big large squid that just plopping out (gesturing madly) that's like NO! I'm all of these things," said actor Audra McDonald.

Most notably, an American story that continues to resonate…and provoke.

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