Let's begin with a quote from the 5th Avenue Theatre's program for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. "This production," writes David Armstrong, the theater's executive producer and artistic director, "is the national touring company of the recent Tony Award–winning Broadway revival and it features many of the Broadway cast along with our acclaimed 5th Avenue Theatre Orchestra. Meanwhile, a new musical—Disney's Aladdin—has recently..." What is astonishing about this statement is that it's all the program has to say about this controversial "revival" of a famous (if not the most famous) American opera. Later in the program, all the reader gets are two pages that celebrate the genius of George Gershwin ("Everything he heard lodged in his brain..."), broadly explain the opera's musical sources ("African American blues, ragtime, Jewish folk tunes"), and provide some basic information about its source (a play by Dorothy Heyward, Porgy, based on a novel of the same name by her husband, DuBose Heyward) and setting ("the real-life Cabbage Row... on Charleston's Church Street"). That's it.
Indeed, a person who has no idea about the story and thinking behind The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess would think they are just watching Porgy and Bess. But there is a profound reason why the name of the former is not exactly the same as the latter. The former (which runs for two and a half hours) is a stripped-down version of the latter (which runs for four hours). And it was stripped down for reasons that are mostly political.
The pugnacious cultural critic Stanley Crouch was not unfair when he wrote: "Porgy and Bess is little more than a coon show, albeit a glorious one in its way." The characters in the opera drink too much, do drugs too much, gamble too much, fight too much, dance too much, fuck too much, pray too much, and have no class consciousness to speak of. Why are these people so poor? Why do they live in a ghetto (Catfish/Cabbage Row—the program does not fail to tell us that this part of Charleston has been renovated and is now a "popular tourist attraction lined with boutiques, antique shops, and restaurants")? Why do these black folks seem to be just fine with their terrible lot? Absent from the opera is a larger social and racial framework that could help explain these questions. The community simply lives in a timeless bubble, and each character of the community is ruled by a sad passion (greed: the drug dealer, lust: Bess, rage: Crown) stamped on them at birth. The mission at the heart of The Gershwins' is not only to comment on the absence of a social/racial context/reality in the original, but also, and more importantly, provide a feminist assessment of Bess's predicament—a complicated woman torn between a good man with a bad leg and an evil man with a hard cock.
First staged at American Repertory Theater in Boston in 2011, The Gershwins' is directed by a woman, Diane Paulus, who has a reputation for experimenting with classical theater. For this project (or mission), she collaborated with two other women, the acclaimed black American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the opera, and the accomplished black American composer Diedre Murray, who adapted the music for a smaller orchestra. The result? A work that feels like it fell from the highest parts of Porgy and Bess's heaven—a timeless, classless, too-perfect place—and onto earth. Recall that Crouch called Porgy and Bess "glorious." In this production/reduction, we see only the shards of this glory glimmering between characters who move, talk, dance, and often sing like human beings. We also get something that's hard if not impossible for the original, which was staged in 2012 by Seattle Opera, to provide: great acting. Porgy and Bess is really all about the music. Each of its characters is less a person and more like a key on a piano. You strike it right, and you get this pure sound and emotion. In Parks's adaptation, which draws directly from the novel and life in general, there is more personality for the performers to play with. And as a result, we recognize the depth of Nathaniel Stampley in Porgy, the greatness of Alvin Crawford in Crown, and the intelligence of Kingsley Leggs in Sporting Life.
But this production is really about Bess, played by Alicia Hall Moran. Maybe this is just me, but the impression I got from the original is that Bess is a prostitute. In this version, it is clear that she is not a prostitute at all but the girlfriend of a hardworking and hard-playing stevedore, Crown. Yes, she is addicted to cocaine, but so are lots of other people in Charleston. Moran's Bess convincingly communicates a character who is not as weak and dependent as the original. She is less concerned with choosing either a bad man or a good man than considering motherhood and whether she wants to conform to stable and Christian matriarchal obligations. This is where the real stress appears: It's between a modern woman and traditional maternity. And so what influences the decision she makes near the end isn't so much the men in her life as the restricted ethos of the women in her community.
In an irritated 2011 letter to the New York Times, Stephen Sondheim wrote about the title of this revision: "I assume that's in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart Porgy and Bess that was coming to town..." A much better way to handle the name would have been to follow this dialectical move: The original play, like the novel, is Porgy, the opera is Porgy and Bess, and the new adaption should just be Bess.