It is a truth not universally acknowledged that writers are always writing for somebody. Any writer with ego enough to desire publication has an audience in the conscious or subconscious mind during the act of creation. It is also true that this hovering audience shapes the creation as surely as the potter’s intended use for a pot shapes the clay. As Toni Morrison asked of the great novel “Invisible Man,” “Invisible to who?”
I had this thought while watching the excellent and moving adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” at the ART in Cambridge recently. According to the Playbill this production is “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” reportedly the title required by the Gershwin estate, but I am not so sure. The opera has been famously, and controversially, adapted by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, and I, for one, am grateful. Were it strictly the Gershwins’ opera, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much.
I can’t say for sure, though, because I’ve never seen "Porgy and Bess" before. Never wanted to.
I always assumed George Gershwin and his team created this grand American folk opera primarily for a white, early-twentieth century audience and that it therefore was unlikely to speak to me. What little I knew about the piece--the cringe-inducing lyrics by George Gershwin’s brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward (“I Got Plenty Of Nuthin’ ” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) layered atop the sublime music, the fact that Sidney Poitier had at first refused to star in the movie version, the character description of Bess as a loose drug addict and the depiction of Porgy as deformed--did little to change my mind. Even considering that it might have been bold for the original creative team to imagine the inner lives of black people in 1935 didn’t mean I wanted to see it. Just because a portrayal is sympathetic doesn’t mean it is not also a stereotype.
All of which is to say I arrived at the ART slightly skeptical. The first few songs—the sweet and famous lullaby “Summertime” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”--did little to ease my worry. The crap game scene early in the first act--bare-armed black men gambling and courting violence--had me shifting in my seat.
But then the funeral scene hooked me. Here is the moment the production comes into full possession of itself. Here were people I recognized. Here was grieving and movement, gesture and sorrow, and song that I knew. Here was a witness to African-American life that felt deeply-rooted and authentic and true.
How important is such authenticity? To theatergoers who prize Gershwin’s transcendent score over all else, the African dance gestures and dead-on black church movements in the funeral scene may not mean much. Likewise, the set-up which gives context (and standard English) to Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” rescuing it from being a happy, darkey song may not greatly improve the work and the “excavation” of Bess’ character which Lori-Parks has spoken of doing may seem unnecessary or even presumptuous to some.
To me, though, these transformations allowed me to fully embrace a work I fear I may not have before. They also go a long way toward answering a question I had upon first reading about this production: Does the world really need an updated version of Porgy and Bess? Do black people?
The answer to both questions is yes. The world needs this production because Audra McDonald is a revelation. Even with Parks’ tweaking, the character of Bess still hovers at the edge of blurred, two-dimensionality but McDonald wrenches her into focus as a vulnerable and deeply flawed woman fighting hard to save herself in the only way she knows. As others have said, this is not only great singing but great acting too.
Black people need this production now because “Porgy and Bess” is a story of not only of black romantic love (which would be reason enough), but also of black community, and of the redemptive and transformative power of love.
Watching Norm Lewis’ crippled Porgy extend his hand to the beautiful Bess (and, yes, I’m glad they took him off of that damn goat cart) I tried to remember the last time we saw a story of a black man’s love for a black woman raising him to manhood and changing his life. When was that on the ART’s or any other local stage? (Heck, try to find, on broadcast or cable television right now, a black man with a black female love interest at all.) When was the last pop culture depiction that not only offered a black woman so valued and desirable that three men were willing to fight over her but, almost casually, also tossed the stories of two other solid and loving black couples into the mix?
And, yes, among a people still scarred, not only by the legacy of legalized racial oppression, but also by the present reality of racial caste and social control, manifest, among other ways, in mass incarceration of black men, any time is the right time for a story of a strong and vibrant black community.
It is not just Porgy who loves Bess. But the other characters who love as well: Clara who loves Jake, Serena who loves her husband, and Mariah and the fisherman and the preacher and the undertaker who love everyone. It is not just Porgy who will save Bess, if Bess is to be saved; it is the flawed but ultimately embracing and forgiving citizens of Catfish Row, who know that in loving and uplifting the least of them they are also saving themselves.
(Photos by Michael J. Lutch)
The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” American Repertory Theater through October 2, 2011, with the potential of a Broadway run early next year. Full information available at the ART’s Web site (including video interviews with the cast), http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/gershwins-porgy-and-bess.