Porgy and Bess delights at the American Repertory Theatre
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On Sunday, Sept. 25, a special showing of George Gershwin’s legendary opera Porgy and Bess was performed for students and representatives of Colby Conversations On Race (CCOR) and Society Organized Against Racism (SOAR) at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Mass. A revival, this production is a celebrated fusion of jazz and classical opera—a fresh take on an old classic—and has recieved outstanding reviews.
The original Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, combining Edwin DuBose Heyward’s libretto and George Gershwin’s musical score. While their vision was to successfully depict a passionate love story within an African American community in Charleston, S.C., the era during which they lived provoked a surface-deep plot incorporating subtle stereotypes and racist imagery.
Through the ingenious work of the Creative Team, A.R.T.’s production of Porgy and Bess has entirely revamped and re-imagined those stereotypes. Instead of the formulaic characterization of the African American protagonists, the characters are now genuine, emotional and most significantly, real.
The all-star Creative Team includes A.R.T.’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus, OBIE Award-winning composer Diedre Murray and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Together, the trio re-mastered the outdated opera into a stunning historical snapshot of African American life in the South in the early 1920s.
Although originally composed as a classical opera, Porgy and Bess has had a lasting impact on music since the 1930s, when jazz musicians and rockstars alike, from Billie Holiday to Miles Davis to Janis Joplin, began covering the famous musical motif “Summertime.” The new adaptation of the fusion-opera has a much larger basis in musical roots than operatic ones, appealing to a wider audience.
The story follows down-on-her-luck female protagonist Bess (Audra McDonald), who is abandoned by her hostile lover, Crown (Phillip Boykin), after he drunkenly murders a man. Bess takes refuge with a crippled man from the small town of Catfish Row, Porgy (Norm Lewis), leaving behind the drug and alcohol culture of her urban origins. The pair quickly fall in love, but conflicts arise when Crown returns to get Bess back. Ultimately, Bess leaves Catfish Row for the city, but, in a powerful ending performance, Porgy, crippled leg and all, decides to go after her. Although the audience is left on that mysterious note, there was a universal understanding that Porgy makes it to New York and finds Bess.
A.R.T.’s production of Porgy and Bess as a whole was nothing less than spectacular. On top of a fantastic contemporary arrangement Murray rooted in neo-classicism, classical opera and jazz, the visual performance is beautifully understated. While the setting is a fairly simplistic stage made out of pseudo ragged-edged and loose boards, the effect of conveying a country town or a fisherman’s wharf is perfected by different colored lighting depending on the scene.
During culturally historic and entertaining dance scenes, shadows and light play significant factors as embellishments of the space. In an intense hurricane scene toward the end, the wooden walls encompassing the stage literally lift up to reveal pouring water and flashing lightning behind the stage.
In a discussion with university students, faculty and the actors of Porgy and Bess after the show, one of the main themes considered was the new kind of truthfulness of the characters in the story. The discussion began with a powerful spoken word performance by Dean Jamele Adama from Brandeis University, president of SOAR, and followed by reactions and responses from students and actors. William Smith, director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College and original founder of CCOR at Emerson College, praised the new “cross-cultural competency” that was lacking in the original production. Essentially, individuals agreed that the A.R.T. production of Porgy and Bess re-imagined a momentary opera and transformed it into a timeless musical.