Porgy and Bess - A series of observations from the dramaturge and cast.

The cast visits Catfish Row, Charleston SC May of 2017:

Danielle J. Long, Bess:

 "Mainly for me, three things were accomplished on the trip.  First of all, the trip provided specific mental images (ie.the spanish moss that hangs from many of the trees, the colossal Angel Oak Tree on Johns Island, the marshy "low country" that Bess likely treks in the story to get back to Catfish Row from the island, the shape of the homes on the historical "Hanging Tree" Ashley Ave strip).  Secondly, it provided the memory of textures (ie the muggy air, the crunchy, clingy feeling of the spanish moss we collected by hand to be used on the set, the hard cobblestone on our walk to Catfish Row, the hunger we all felt having toured the town for hours before stopping to eat).  

 Notably, I remember as we were driving away from Samuel "Porgy" Small's gravesite, Terra Hodge, a fellow actress, called attention to how a woman sitting under a tent selling fresh fruit, swatted at an insect on her neck.  This made us consider, not only the muggy air, but perhaps the insects we face during our picnic on the imaginary Kittiwah Island, and perhaps even when at home on Catfish Row.  

 Finally, there were also the high pitched guttural laughs the cast shared in the van on the ride home - to which Philip Bernard Smith, who plays Porgy (and who has been conducting Method Acting Workshops with the cast) was quick to note as the exact kind of interaction and sounds we should have onstage during some of the fun, social scenes in the show.  So, ideally, it will be our aim to take these captured moments and translate them to our imaginary environment and imaginary relationships onstage affecting how we behave - hopefully, making our performance richer and more believable.  

 On another note, when I was packing for the trip I grabbed about 20 of the shows promo cards/flyers, for "who knows" sake.  The number of seemingly fortuitous encounters we had was outrageous from the moment we landed at the Angel Oak tree to even during a gas stop on the way home - either with theater lovers from North Carolina, and even more specifically, shea butter vendors from Greensboro, NC with a particular love for Porgy and Bess, or with indigenous South Carolinians who saw the original 1970's Porgy and Bess production in Charleston, SC, to real life relatives of Samuel "Porgy" Smalls, and more.  We even sang different musical numbers from the show for the passers-by and by special request on at least 3 different occasions.  The appropriate conclusion in each of these encounters was to hand them a Justice Theater Project Porgy and Bess flyer - each time, the flyer was received warmly with sincerity and gratitude.  I came home with not a single flyer left."

Marcia Mattox, Woman of Catfish Row cast member: “Charleston: cobble stones, catfish, colorful row houses, ports, piers, mahogany stable doors, swamps, tree moss, sweet grass, market places flooded with tourist; all of this aided in our search to speak with the decedents of our historical ancestral inhabitants in the land. We went looking for the evidence of communal living and we found it in ourselves.

As a theater group our experience in Charleston unfolded right before our eyes. We had no set schedule which allowed the spirit to bring individuals and groups at the right time to speak and share with us. They shared their personal attachment to the city and to the production of Porgy and Bess. Tales from the original Charleston production staging and the players who currently live in Cabbage/Catfish Row to the location of the grave site of Samuel “Goat” Smalls Porgy himself who rode around on a goat pulled cart. Each of us took in the experience in an openly personal way and shared like excited children with each other, there was a synergy formulating that began to unite and embrace us as the weekend went on. This manifested into the very purpose of the expedition, which was to give us a sense of smell, sound and strong visual of the setting we are a part of in this presentation.”

Dramaturge Carly Prentis Jones:

May 25, 2017 by Carly Prentis Jones

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess won the Tony Award in 2012 for Best Revival of a Musical; however, in my opinion, this was not merely a “revival” of a musical that had already been done. This version was the creation of something entirely new that audiences had not seen performed before - the uniquely American story of Porgy and Bess told powerfully through the traditional all-Black cast but with fully-developed, relatable characters that audiences could connect to on a human level. This was a new creation by director Diane Paulus and writers Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, using music and words from the original opera by George and Ira Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess musical revival has made this story much more accessible to a wider audience - it is shorter, more authentic to the Black vernacular, and more psychologically layered than the original opera.  

When Suzan-Lori Parks was recruited for the “Porgy and Bess” rewrite, she worked to give the residents of Catfish Row more dimension. In the program notes, Parks elaborated on how she approached the controversial adaptation." 'Porgy and Bess' was written by white authors attempting to replicate an 'authentic' black voice and, while the original opera triumphs on so many levels, I feel the writing sometimes suffers from what I call 'a shortcoming of understanding.' There are times in all of our lives when, regardless of who we are, we experience shortcomings of understanding. In DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and the Gershwins' original, there's a lot of love and a lot of effort made to understand the people of Catfish Row. In turn, I've got love and respect for their work, but in some ways, I feel it falls short in the creation of fully realized characters. Now, one could see their depiction of African-American culture as racist, or one could see it as I see it: as a problem of dramaturgy."

Even with the original opera’s  “problem of dramaturgy” and racial archetypes, which caused many Black performers to hesitate before getting involved - no one can deny the importance of the original operatic production. Throughout history, it has involved countless famous performers: from Anne Brown and Todd Duncan in the original operatic cast to Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Etta Moten, Cab Calloway, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr.

As a young performer in the 1950s, Dr. Maya Angelou was recruited to play the role of Ruby in an international tour of the opera "Porgy and Bess," which was sponsored by the State Department. During this time, dancers were hired as a part of the cast to add an element that opera singers did not posses. In an NPR interview, Dr. Angelou spoke of her time with Porgy and Bess with great nostalgia. “I was very grateful to be with "Porgy and Bess," and to know that when Martha Flowers sang the "Strawberry Song," that whatever the Gershwin's had learned they had taken that directly out of the mouths of people in the South. This was exactly what was sung. So I was proud to proud to be an African-American. I knew that there was art from the poets and from the Gershwin's. I knew there was great art. I also knew that they had been inspired by great art, the great art of the African-American.”

A young performer who played Sporting Life in The Washington National Opera’s 2010 production of the original had similar feelings. “For me, Porgy and Bess is a truly authentic storytelling. It's a story that is bred in Charleston, South Carolina, where I've had the opportunity to perform this role. And when you do it there, there's such a different sense from the audience because it’s completely relatable to them. And so, it's harder maybe for an outside of that area audience to grasp it at first. But for me, I've never had a problem performing in it. One, because it’s such a beautiful piece of music. Two, because the characters are so real and so relatable. Everyone knows a drug dealer. Everyone knows the church lady, and everyone knows someone who has an addiction. All these characters are portrayed in the show.”

So, why is it important to tell this story today? It is not only important to our theatrical history and close to the hearts of many performers of color, but I also believe it is important for our country to celebrate what is uniquely American - especially during these times. With everything that is going on in our country today, I think it is important for us to celebrate and define the rich culture of our young country. I don’t look at the music in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as just African-American music - it is American music. The spirituals and blues music that is at the root of Porgy and Bess are completely unique American artforms. The characters and storylines that are illustrated through this reinvented script tell the important experience of African Americans in the Gullah during a very unique time in history- which is at the heart of American heritage. Former First Lady, Michelle Obama stated , “The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.” Let’s celebrate our history with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.


May 12, 2017 by Carly Prentis Jones

As a young woman of color in undergraduate school studying opera, the arias from Porgy and Bess became a favorite of mine to sing and I fell in love with the rich, beautiful score that Gershwin wrote. Since opera is traditionally a European tradition, most repertoire is in German, Italian, or French - there are English operas but this is the only opera that was written to represent the traditions of African Americans (besides Scott Joplin's Tremonisha that rarely gets performed). It has been controversial over the years - especially since it was written by a white man and represents many African American stereotypes in the story.

THE OPERA THEN: In the opera Porgy and Bess, you don't really have an opportunity to get to know the characters on a deep, humanized level - many of them lack dimension. There are times in opera, that the focus is primarily on the beauty of the voice and less on the development of believable characters with motivations, back stories and story arcs - I believe this was the case in Porgy and Bess. It is important to note that both Gershwin and Heyward passed away within five years of the opera's premiere, and that operas typically go through revisions after inception as it travels. In fact, many have told the story of the creators cutting the original four-hour work the very night of the premiere. Many believe that Gershwin and Heyward planned on further development of the opera. This might explain the lack of character development.

THE MUSICAL TODAY: When playwright Suzan-Lori Parks fleshed out the script for the musical revival, she was able to add interesting back story and dialogue to explain the characters and make them appear as real people to audiences. Whenever a character is portrayed as "one-dimensional" or without much substance - it is easier to fall in the lines of popular racial stereotypes that lack a human connection - this is because they are not seen as real people. 

For example, Porgy's popular song "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'", has been seen by many as a very clear representation of minstrelsy - the unfortunately familiar portrayal of the cheerful "darkie with empty pockets". He happily sings, "I got plenty o' nuttin' and nuttin's plenty for me. I got no car, I got no mule, got no misery". This song lacks development and motivation - as pure entertainment for the audience which is also reflective of minstrelsy. To solve this issue and to make the song more dramatically cohesive, the musical revival's creative team added text that was not there before - this dialogue sets the song up so that it made more sense in the context of the play and added meaning for Porgy to sing the song.

The creative team of the revised musical made a controversial decision to eliminate the famous "goat cart" plot device that has been historically used by Porgy in the opera. In the revival, he walks with a cane. The opera never explains why Porgy is disabled. The book Porgy by Dubose Heyward, which Porgy and Bess originated from, explains that Porgy was crippled from birth. The original line "God made me to be lonely" was used in the new script to create a beautiful moment showing a man having a conversation with God, "From the day I was born, you made me to be lonely..."

During the development of the script for the musical revival, Audra McDonald who played the lead of Bess, described in an interview why deeper character development is important. There are a lot of questions about the motivations of characters. Bess is an extremely under-developed character in the opera.

"Okay, at this moment, they're going through withdrawal, cocaine withdrawal," McDonald says. "At this moment, someone has just been murdered. At this moment, someone is promising to murder someone so that you will not relapse and run away. I mean, all of these things, when you put them in a realistic context, the songs come even more alive."  Audra McDonald