TOPICS > Arts

New ‘Porgy and Bess’ Interpretation Provokes as Opera Continues to Resonate

September 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Reinterpreting a classic work is always a sensitive undertaking, but when that classic is "Porgy and Bess," the singular American opera, it can get downright controversial. WGBH-Boston's Jared Bowen reports.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a new interpretation of a classic opera, currently in a pre-Broadway run in Cambridge, Mass.

Our story comes from PBS station WGBH in Boston. The reporter is Jared Bowen.

JARED BOWEN, WGBH: “Porgy and Bess,” much like the tale of tortured romance it tells, has been mightily tossed by storms during its 76-year history, caught in tempests over creative license and charges of racism.

Now there is controversy once again, as the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., stages a new adaptation.

(SINGING)

JARED BOWEN: The show is set in Catfish Row, a fictionalized enclave of Charleston, S.C., where drugs and violence are pervasive. It’s after a murder that the drug-addled Bess lands in the arms of the disabled beggar Porgy.

This view of African-American life in the 1930s came from the show’s white creators, George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.

David Alan Grier plays Sporting Life, a drug dealer.

DAVID ALAN GRIER, actor: It was a different time. You know, the outlet for black voices, black intellectuals to tell our story was different.

JARED BOWEN: From the moment George Gershwin chose to adopt DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy” into an opera, there’s been controversy, controversy that he dare to create anything but popular music, that he dare write music solely for African-American performers at a time when much of the country was segregated, and that he presumed to be able to tell the story of a black community.

Audra McDonald plays Bess.

AUDRA MCDONALD, actress: When people say, is “Porgy and Bess” 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, show their wants, their desires, their hopes, their dreams, their fears.

JARED BOWEN: 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 ART musical is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS, playwright: I didn’t approach as, you know, 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.

(SINGING)

AUDRA MCDONALD: From the very beginning, we were setting out to make sure that this is about 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. Boy, they sing well and, oh, they get passionate. And then they kill and they drink the whiskey, and they smoke the, you know, whatever. So I don’t feel like I have had to stress about that in any way.

JARED BOWEN: Some of the original opera’s scenes were too stereotypical for Parks.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS: The mammy, a large woman with a hand on the hip doing that, you know, the Aunt Jemima type kind of thing, and then the cowering, well-dressed dandy: Oh, I’m scared. The dandy and the mammy. I don’t know any — any street character like Sporting Life who would take this kind of crap from anybody.

So, instead of a mammy moment, I made a mommy moment, in which I said, well, how can this moment work in the real world? And 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, they’re like, ah, come on, don’t be telling my mama.

JARED BOWEN: The ART says it was the Gershwin estate that invited changing when it hand-picked artistic creator Diane Paulus to create a musical from the original opera.

DIANE PAULUS, “Porgy and Bess”: To make “Porgy and Bess” into more of a musical, it’s about breathing, stopping, letting air come in, letting silence play a role and also letting there be dialogue.

ACTOR: Look at that smile you got.

ACTRESS: What you been up to?

ACTOR: Nothing.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Sometimes, I need to add words, sometimes whole new scenes, sometimes take an old scene and turn it inside-out and make it new.

(SINGING)

JARED BOWEN: But it’s these types of changes that have riled some, like Stephen Sondheim, who delivered the most thunderous criticism in August when, in learning of the changes, but 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’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and to hell with the real one.”

SUZAN-LORI PARKS: The purist, I mean, they have their 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 purest state — like, if they want to see Shakespeare done in the Globe with bearbaiting and people who haven’t bathed recently and all men on stage, they can — you know, I’m sure there are places that will provide that opportunity for them.

DAVID ALAN GRIER: I have never done Shakespeare in 30 years where they didn’t cut, snip, change this, get rid of that. Hamlet’s speech is too long. You know, let’s do this. And that’s just Gibson, Chekhov, everybody.

JARED BOWEN: In its storied history, “Porgy and Bess” has evolved since its opening night in Boston. It’s gone from opera to film to the musical. After the Boston debut, Gershwin immediately cut 45 minutes from the show. And two years later, after George’s untimely death, Ira Gershwin also made changes.

DIANE PAULUS: There were things that were still in motion, not to say that the work we have from Gershwin isn’t a masterpiece — it is — but that there was potential in there that was being wrestled with.

AUDRA MCDONALD: People have been trying to put it in a box for all these years. It’s an opera. It’s a musical. It’s — I think it just continues to kind of defy and sort of — it’s like this big, large squid that just keeps plopping out, and you’re like, no, I’m all of these things.

JARED BOWEN: Most notably, it’s an American story that continues to resonate and provoke.