The Curious Case of ‘Porgy and Bess’

As the opera heads to Broadway as a musical, debate goes on: Is it a relic or still relevant?

Courtesy of the A.R.T. Production

This is what Gershwin said in the New York Times in 1935, when critics were trying to figure out how to categorize Porgy: “Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro Life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera, and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material.”

If you are black and involved in music and theater, Porgy has probably figured in your repertoire as it has in Sebron’s. Joseph Joubert, who is currently part of the musical team of the acclaimed Billy Elliott on Broadway and has been a professional musician for 35 years, performed the role of Jasbo Brown, a musician, in the Metropolitan Opera’s productions in 1985 and 1989 and served as rehearsal pianist for that second go-around.

“It has all the elements of a great opera,” he says. Joubert is among those who appreciate the work for what Gershwin intended. “His fascination with our culture — he really penned it to paper. It’s the only piece like that that captures our stuff in the opera world.” 

Roosevelt Andre Credit, who first performed in a concert version of Porgy and Bess while in college, is in the ensemble of the new Paulus-Parks Broadway musical production as one of the fishermen. He appreciates the “tender touches” that have gone into this production, which started with cast members doing extensive research into black life in the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. The characters have been fleshed out and empowered. “These people on Catfish Row are in anybody’s family,” he says of the realism that this production presents.

Going back to the original format, people like my friend Bertie Ray lll, an entrepreneur who is on the board of the Cincinnati Opera, which will present the opera next summer, say that people should accept this as what opera is: oversize. “People are drawn to Porgy and Bess like they are drawn to Faust because of the drama, the intrigue, the passion. It’s Faustian! It’s opera in its highest and finest fashion. And it is uniquely American.”

Be that as it may, performers like Sebron say it is time for more opportunities to open to black, classically trained performers — especially black men. “You will not get many singers to publicly speak against a production of Porgy and Bess, but privately I reckon that there is a certain amount of artistic fatigue … Our community also has to support artistic productions that don’t necessarily have the instant recognition that Porgy and Bess brings.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated that Suzan-Lori Parks was the only black women to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Lynn Nottage won in 2009 for “Ruined.”

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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