Porgy and Bess

This controversial production comes to Broadway with the baggage of both historical and contemporary critique.  First produced in the 1930s as a “folk opera” by George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, this production, directed by Diana Paulus with a revised book by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deirdre L. Murray, opened August 17, 2011, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Paulus is the artistic director.

Before he’d even seen the production, Stephen Sondheim excoriated the artistic team for what he found unethical meddling with the Gershwin’s original work.  But as Hilton Als wrote in a lovely background piece and review for The New Yorker, the “original” was full of racism, an artifact of a moment in theatre history when white people represented their skewed vision of people of color for other white people.  Why in the world would anyone want to preserve such original intentions for a 21st century audience?

More than a bit of sexism surfaced in Sondheim’s argument, too.  Here’s a young white woman director and two talented women artists of color engaging one of famous narratives of American opera and theatre, all with an eye to renovating the central character of Bess, the drug-addicted woman whose desires drive this revision’s plot.  Given this refocusing, Sondheim’s unfortunate objections might derive from his personal taste and respect for some artists over others, as well as from his professional investments in preserving the sanctity of the original text.

The Sondheim kerfuffle sent the production to Broadway on a cloud of critique, but from my perspective, this Porgy and Bess provides a transformative theatre experience.  With a simple set by the talented Riccardo Hernandez; unobtrusive but evocative choreography by Ronald K. Brown; a superb ensemble, each one of whom seems to follow his or her own grounded and nuanced narrative arc; and stage pictures that seem organic instead of posed, the production offers a thrilling experience at the theatre.

Hernandez creates down at the heels Catfish Row, in Charleston, South Carolina, with a one-dimensional curvilinear back drop, all corrugated tin and wooden window frames through which light (designed by Christopher Akerlind) projects in geometric patterns that change with the time of the day.  A simple working water pump establishes the outdoor scenes, and performers bring on wooden chairs and crates to give the stage picture levels and textures.

Yet with so few props and such a schematic set, Paulus and her actors create a whole world, an African American community of fishermen and washerwomen, of tinkerers and tradespeople, of grifters and preachers, and of good people and bad.  The ensemble moves constantly, providing a living backdrop to the story of Bess and Porgy’s doomed relationship.

Paulus draws attention to her stars through their costumes.  Bess (the sublime Audra McDonald) wears a beautiful, bold red dress when she arrives in Catfish Row on the arm of her evil lover/procurer, Crown (Phillip Boykin).  Costume designer ESosa leaves McDonald’s arms bare and her breasts heaving over the bodice, accentuating her figure with a high slit up the side and barely supportive straps.  Porgy (Norm Lewis) wears layered, dirty but pure white shirts, which help him stand out among the rest.

Although the careful design and direction lets spectators track the show’s central couple, Paulus embeds Porgy and Bess’s story within a lively, close-knit neighborhood both visually and narratively.  Theirs isn’t a singular story, but a relationship aided and abetted by a community that’s very protective of its “crippled” friend.

Porgy, hobbled from birth, walks with a stick and a limp, his hips extended awkwardly and his left leg twisted impossibly.  His disability makes it difficult for him to maneuver more than a few steps without being offered a seat by one of his neighbors.  But Lewis plays Porgy with quiet dignity, not an ounce of self-pity, and a sexy magnetism that makes him the production’s emotional core.

Shortly after he and Bess arrive at Catfish Row, Crown murders one of the community’s men.  To avoid prison, Crown hides out on an island off the coast of Charleston while Bess slowly, hesitantly begins to embed herself in the domestic life of Catfish Row, forming an awkward relationship with Porgy.  When she joins her new neighbors for a picnic on the island where Crown happens to be hiding, and dallies behind when the others board the boat for home, Crown accosts Bess, insisting that she’s still his woman and that he’ll come for her once he thinks it’s safe.

In a scene that could easily be played as a rape, Paulus’s direction and McDonald’s terrific acting indicate that although his physical force makes it difficult for Bess to resist Crown, she’s also attracted by his sexual clarity.  Her desire confuses Bess.  In this production, it’s not her drug addiction that’s her Achilles heel, though that weakness appears at key moments to throw her integrity into doubt.  But it’s Bess’s deep sexuality, her own desire, by which she’s ultimately undone.

In Catfish Row, women are supposed to channel their sexuality into marriage and child-rearing.  The upstanding, loving couple Jake (Joshua Henry) and Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) represent the ideal relationship, one to which Bess knows she should aspire but can’t quite figure.

She holds Jake and Clara’s new-born baby with great wonder and tenderness, staring into its face as though it holds a secret she wishes she could fathom.  And when the couple dies in the hurricane that rocks Catfish Row, Bess insists that their baby now belongs to her.  But exactly this contained and proper domesticity eludes Bess, however truly happy she seems in Porgy’s embrace.

Although Porgy repeatedly scoffs that “no cripple can hold Bess,” he never really seems to believe it, because the character’s goodness radiates from Lewis’s presence whether or not he’s speaking.  Lewis’s is a smart, clear, intensely human performance, in which the typical pitfalls of the “crippled” character redeeming the “abled” through his unsullied humanity admittedly is present, but not as salient as it might be.  In this revision, his character feels fuller and more fleshed out, and in fact, Porgy doesn’t ever really redeem Bess.  The typical trope is foiled in ways that help play against the stereotype.

Porgy loves and protects Bess, and finally finds his manhood by killing Crown, who continues to appear in their lives like a demon that just won’t die.  After Porgy stabs Crown to death in a stage fight in which they struggle on the ground, the only level at which Porgy might have a chance to even the odds against Crown, Porgy struggles to stand and declares that he’s now a man.

It’s unfortunate that the disabled Porgy distinguishes himself through violence, and that his gentler, more domestic masculinity is pitted against Crown’s volatile force in the first place.  Boykin, as Crown, is a muscular, large, dark-skinned African American man, who presents the character in all his brutal sexuality and contrasts starkly with Porgy’s less stable physical presence.

Even after Porgy kills Crown, theoretically freeing her from the violent man’s hold, Bess is seduced by Sporting Life (played by David Alan Grier as a kind of Ben Vereen-as-the-Leading-Player-in-Pippin spin-off), who tells her that Porgy will be imprisoned for life and that she belongs in a big city.  Sporting Life smoothly urges her toward the boat that’s leaving soon for New York (in another of the musical’s many numbers that became standards in the American repertoire).

Played by the truly astounding McDonald, Bess’s desires muddle her, pulling her from one choice to the contradictory next.  She clearly feels safe with Porgy, but her blazing sexual heat draws her to danger and to a larger palette on which to paint herself.

Bess never looks quite comfortable in the cotton shifts in muted prints and soft fabrics that signal her acceptance into the quotidian life of Catfish Row.  The image of her lush body presenting itself draped in red in those first scenes always haunts her attempt to be just one of the women, to domesticate herself for her own safety and acceptance.

Nonetheless, this production doesn’t demonize Bess and neither does it leave Porgy broken by her disappearance at the end.  He decides he’ll follow Bess to New York to win her back.

What will happen after is anyone’s guess, but that future isn’t as important as knowing that both Porgy and Bess have opted to move out into a larger world, one less predictable, perhaps, one less full of love and care and fellow-feeling than the landscape of Catfish Row, but one in which they can find bigger, more ennobled versions of themselves in which to live.

That, in itself, is an achievement.

The Feminist Spectator

Porgyand Bess, Richard Rodgers Theatre, Broadway.

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