A new ‘Porgy and Bess’ raises old questions about race and opera

We need more roles for black singers and actors

When George Gershwin debuted his new American folk opera, Porgy and Bess, in 1935, the rights to stage the production came with a stipulation: It could only be performed by black artists.

The rule was instituted to eliminate the possibility of the opera being performed by white singers in blackface.

Now, New York’s Metropolitan Opera has resurrected the 1935 folk opera, composed by George Gershwin, with libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin. This new production, which opened the Met’s season on Sept. 23, marks the first time the Met has staged Porgy and Bess since 1990. It’s as sweeping and grand as any Met production — an enormous chorus of black singers fills every corner of the stage (the Met hired the chorus instead of using its own, which is predominantly white), and Catfish Row is rendered in inspired fashion by set designer Michael Yeargan. Classics such as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” still hold tremendous magic, thanks to the work of conductor David Robertson.

Porgy and Bess is a story about isolation, compassion, abuse and connection set against a backdrop of poverty and prejudice in Charleston, South Carolina. The city’s poorest black residents live in a fictional tenement called Catfish Row. Bess is a drug addict whom the God-fearing women of Catfish Row deride as a “hussy.” Her boyfriend, Crown, is an abusive, murderous drunk. Porgy, the man with whom Bess takes up after Crown skips town to avoid a murder charge, is lonesome, disabled and in want of love. As much as Porgy’s presence improves her life, Bess, like many abuse survivors, has a hard time letting go of her twin addictions: Crown and “happy dust,” provided by the drug dealer Sportin’ Life. When Porgy goes to jail after freeing Bess from the lurking menace that is Crown, she’s still not quite his woman. The opera ends with Bess following Sportin’ Life and his happy dust to New York and Porgy, free from jail, chasing after his beloved Bess.

The opera’s presence on the calendar has once again invited questions about the racial politics of the show. Among them: Does it still make sense to present an opera written by Russian Jewish immigrant siblings and a white husband and wife team from a wealthy South Carolina family as the opera about black American life? Is it a collection of insulting stereotypes set against gorgeous orchestrations, or something more?

Attending a performance of Porgy and Bess helped clarify some of those questions for me. But it was another show altogether that helped me reframe how to think about them: Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor.

Written and performed by Cobb, American Moor is a two-person show that explores a black American actor’s frustrations with Othello. It turns out that the issues with Shakespeare and Othello are quite similar to those that arise with every production of Porgy and Bess. Cobb’s character, who is simply identified as “an actor,” possesses a deep love of Shakespeare. He wants to be Hamlet. He wants to be Titania, the fairy queen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And yet he’s forever being shuffled toward Othello because he is 6-foot-5 and black.

Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor.

Nina Wurtzel

Ya know, when you’re a tall, Black American male, the one question you get asked more than any other in life is, “Do you play basketball?” Now, when you’re a tall, Black American male actor, that basketball question comes one question behind, “Are you now, or have you ever been Othello?” As if the enactment of this pitiful, lovestruck Negro who loses his mind over some uncorroborated line of the purest bulls— that some white boy whispers in his ear, and deads his wife is something I should aspire to. … The play’s relevance to me was urged perpetually. Older white actors would look me up and down, and then, with a fatherly wink say, “So, have you played him?” no longer even needing to give “Him” a name, but you can bet they weren’t talking about Julius Caesar.

But what really troubles the actor is that he’s never allowed to use his experiences as a black man in a predominantly white society to shape how he might play the role. He’s subject to the mercies and whims of white directors and their limited visions of what Othello should be.

Like the impoverished residents of Catfish Row, Othello the Moor does not provide a flattering portrait of blackness. Nevertheless, the actor approaches him with thoughtful rigor and a well of compassion because he wants to do the character, and the Bard, justice, even though he doesn’t want to be stuck playing Othello forever.

The same conundrum is true of Porgy and Bess.

So much of the angst surrounding Porgy and Bess and its imperfect characters would dissipate if black opera singers were provided the release valve of variety. There are few canonical operas outside of Aida and Otello with characters that are explicitly written as black, and fewer still that require all-black or majority-black companies. If black opera singers didn’t have to worry so much about being confined to Catfish Row for the rest of their careers, if the whole of the operatic canon was available to them in the way that the actor wishes the whole of Shakespeare were available to him, none of this would be quite so fraught. Of course, there are always exceptions: Denyce Graves sings Maria in this production of Porgy and Bess, but the mezzo-soprano became a world-renowned star thanks to her take on Carmen. If her circumstances were more rule than exception, Porgy and Bess could simply exist as an opera about black people instead of the opera about black people.

This is part of the reason I’m so enthusiastic about the arrivals of new works, including Blue, The Central Park Five and Fire Shut Up In My Bones. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas’ wildly popular young adult novel, seems ripe for an operatic adaptation, a form that would suit it better than the George Tillman Jr. film that came out last year. Stories about police shootings and injustice seem ready-made as material for new operas, given the soaring tragedy that’s inherent to them. The trick, again, comes with ensuring that they’re not the only new operas about black people that are being commissioned or produced.

But after seeing American Moor and Porgy and Bess, it became clear to me that Tams-Witmark, the organization that licenses Porgy and Bess, might want to update its requirements with a new stipulation. Besides requiring black actors in black roles, perhaps it would make sense to require a black director too.

Angel Blue (left) as Bess and Frederick Ballentine (right) as Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess.

Ken Howard / Met Opera

When Gershwin completed Porgy and Bess, just two years before he died in 1937, “jazz and the blues were still considered rather subversive musical forms associated with lowerclass society and negative sides of black identity. … Gershwin was pushing the comfort zone of respectable society when he announced that his use of black music was part of an ‘indigenous’ American musical voice,” Naomi Adele André, the Seattle Opera’s scholar in residence, wrote in Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement.

But while black music, namely jazz, blues and hip-hop, has become recognized as central to the American musical voice, black directors arguably still find themselves on the outskirts, similar to the ways black musicians and performers found themselves in 1935. The Met’s 2019-20 season contains 25 operas. All of them, except for The Magic Flute, which is being directed by Julie Taymor, are directed by white men.

When Porgy and Bess was revived as a Broadway musical starring Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier, writers Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray adapted the original libretto with the intention of updating the story and characters for a modern audience. Diane Paulus directed, and the production was authorized by the George and Ira Gershwin families and the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward estate.

Composer Stephen Sondheim was practically apoplectic. “[Paulus] fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in ‘realistic’ details is likely to reduce them to line drawings,” Sondheim told Vulture in 2011, when the production and Paulus’ intentions were announced. “It makes you speculate about what would happen if she ever got her hands on Tosca and Don Giovanni. How would we get to know them? Ms. Paulus would probably want to add an aria or two to explain how Tosca got to be a star, and she would certainly want some additional material about Don Giovanni’s unhappy childhood to explain what made him such an unconscionable lecher.”

James Robinson, who makes his Met debut helming the current staging, has crafted a Porgy that hews to Gershwin and Heyward’s original libretto while pulsing with vibrance and humanity. The addition of Camille A. Brown’s jubilantly spiritual choreography and the performances of Angel Blue as Bess and Eric Owens as Porgy make it so. Played by Frederick Ballentine, Sportin’ Life is just too charismatic and charming to hate, even if he is a would-be pimp and a drug-pushing nihilist.

Importantly, the Met has embraced Porgy and Bess as an opera instead of a musical or some mashup of the two forms. Opera is full of melodramatic archetypes that rely on directors and performers to transform them into something more onstage, from Carmen to La Traviata to Otello to Madama Butterfly to, as Sondheim pointed out, Tosca and Don Giovanni.

When Porgy and Bess is consumed and performed as an opera, the presentation has a way of massaging its faults into the greater folds of the medium. What might seem like a collection of pathologies smooth into classic tropes. Tragic, wanton women and abusive men run rampant through opera, as do the ravages of tuberculosis, parents who don’t listen and judgy girlfriends who provide a Greek chorus for a heroine’s missteps. They help make opera, well, opera.

A view of the Michael Yeargan-designed set of Porgy and Bess.

Ken Howard / Met Opera

“Too frequently, it seems that the issues have been framed around dichotomous inquiry: ‘Is Porgy and Bess racist or not?,’ ” André wrote. “This question usually encompasses the assumed narrative that the ‘all-white’ team of George and Ira Gershwin, along with DuBose Heyward … wrote about black Southern life from their ‘white’ vantage point. I find this binary construction to be rather unhelpful because it feels like a weak assessment of the situation.”

When reviewing Otto Preminger’s 1959 film adaptation of Porgy, which starred Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier and a separate set of voices dubbed in for the singing, James Baldwin wrote that “… it owes its vitality to the fact that DuBose Heyward loved the people he was writing about. (By which I do not mean to imply that he loved all Negroes; he was a far better man than that.) Just the same, it is a white man’s vision of Negro life.”

Given that Porgy and Bess is set in Charleston, and includes a trip to Kiawah Island, perhaps a version of the opera directed by Julie Dash (who offers such a deeply researched and loving meditation on Gullah culture in her 1991 film Daughters of the Dust) would reconcile the many conflicting issues that surround it. After all, the Heywards’ interpretation of low-country Gullah patois is not exact, but more of an amalgam that’s simply labeled as “Negro dialect.”

A work that positions poor black people of the South Carolina low country as worthy of the same treatment as the glamorous and ill-fated Violetta of La Traviata will elicit no protest from me. Bess is as deserving of our sympathies as Violetta or Carmen, just as Crown is as deserving of our disdain as Mister from The Color Purple, Bill Sikes from Oliver! or Joe Starks from Their Eyes Were Watching God.

As we assess how to marry modern sensitivities with historic works, we can find guidance in what George Gershwin was aiming to do when he wrote Porgy and Bess in the first place, and build upon it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.