"The times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms," said Duke Ellington after the 1935 Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess. Written by a quartet of white people—George and Ira Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Hayward—and stuffed with cringe-worthy stereotypes of black ghetto life, the opera focuses on Porgy, a crippled beggar who's content with "plenty o' nuttin'" but yearns for cocaine-sniffing "loose woman" Bess, who's stuck in turn on brutish manual laborer Crown. Around them, the poor, idle, crap-shooting inhabitants of Catfish Row face crises mostly by singing spirituals or getting into fights.
You'd think the show wouldn't have stirred much controversy in 1935. White artists of the era regularly co-opted and caricatured black culture for white audiences. (A habitual Harlem slummer, George Gershwin made his first stab at a black opera, the flop Blue Monday, in 1922.) Blackface was standard fare on Broadway and in Hollywood. In fact, before Gershwin made the deal to score Hayward's 1927 play, Porgy—based on his 1926 novel of the same name—Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein planned to turn it into a musical vehicle for Al Jolson. Hayward had no compunction about describing "the primitive Negro" as "the inheritor of a source of delight that I would give much to possess."
So it says a lot about the show's singularly polarizing racial politics that the preternaturally diplomatic Ellington launched such a frank attack on it. He wasn't alone, either. Composer Virgil Thomson scolded, "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself." Three decades later the vitriol hadn't subsided. Social critic Harold Cruse wrote that the show "belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African American should want to see it, or be seen in it."
During the lead-up to its current revival, Court Theatre made much of Porgy and Bess's troubled history, posting two in-depth articles on its website (one of them also appears in the program). But rather than confront the show's politics onstage, director Charles Newell has scrubbed away nearly all political, social, or cultural specificity. This is Porgy and Bess in Neverland.
The story plays out in an empty square made of white, weathered wood. The cast enter through the aisles, wearing loose-fitting, bleached, cotton-and-linen outfits, and greet audience members with beauty-pageant congeniality before an actress arrives centerstage to sing a cheerful rendition of "Summertime" to her make-believe baby. For much of the evening the cast sit, stand, or mill about as though they've got little to do but reflect stage light. Their activities seldom suggest their relationships or histories together. They look like they belong in a Calvin Klein fragrance ad.
Setting Porgy and Bess nowhere and never is a good way to offend no one.
However distasteful the opera's original world may be, it's at least real in the sense that the people in it struggle for survival. Here, the characters sing about travails that rarely find concrete dramatic expression. It's hard to believe that this graceful coterie has only pocket change to offer when the hat is passed to pay for a murdered neighbor's funeral, or that they cower together like children when a hurricane hits, worried that Judgment Day has come. When a white police investigator shows up to threaten and intimidate the locals, it's as if this emissary from the real world had dropped from the moon.
With the cast stranded in a handsomely designed void, flaws in the show's lurching narrative become apparent. It dawdles—even though Newell has cut an hour from the original Broadway running time of three-and-a-half hours—largely because so many of the best-known songs do little to advance the action.
No meaningful stage world, no satisfying story—that leaves us with the music. Which is something: an ingenious, seductive amalgam of jazz, blues, gospel, Tin Pan Alley, classical, and Jewish liturgical music.
Musical director Doug Peck's six-piece orchestrations are merely serviceable, and the solo singing is a mixed bag. With the exception of James Earl Jones II as Crown, the strongest voices belong to incidental ensemble members, making Todd Kryger's Porgy and Alexis Rogers's Bess comparatively ineffective. Still, the ensemble singing is soul stirring. If Porgy and Bess still belongs on any stage, perhaps it's the concert stage. The score is all that's worth preserving.