Reimagining Porgy and Bess

The A.R.T. takes on the Gershwins' classic and prep it for Broadway
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 12, 2011

porgy and bess
STAR POWER Megawatt Broadway performer Audra McDonald will sing Bess.

One of the benefits of growing up the daughter of a rabid Nina Simone fan: early and frequent exposure to her version of the Gershwin song "I Loves You Porgy." To this day, every time I listen to Nina's theatrical torment as she sings, "It's gonna be like dyin', Porgy/Daddy deep inside me/but when he comes I know/I'll have to go," my stomach lurches and my eyes just about cross.

When my mom and I went to see Miss Nina at the Chicago Theatre a year before she died, you could feel the air go out of the auditorium when she played the opening arpeggio and the crowd realized what they were in for. By the time she sang the second, slower "I love you Porgy" that begins the second verse — to be clear, Nina sings "I love you," never "I loves you" — Gershwin himself could have walked into the room unnoticed.

Fifty years after Nina recorded them, and 80 after they were originally written, these phrases still comprise one of the most viscerally terrifying moments in the American songbook. Though I could sense that just as well at eight as I can at 31, it wasn't until more recently that I understood they are attached to a story, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's only opera, which debuted in 1935, with lyrics by his brother Ira and the novelist DuBose Heyward, who also wrote the novel and play upon which it is based. I had heard the opera plenty without ever registering a plot.

As it turns out, "I Loves You Porgy" is sung in the midst of terrible woes. When Bess arrives with her boyfriend, Crown, in the impoverished South Carolina fishing community of Catfish Row, one of the first things he does is kill someone in a knife fight. Crown departs, Bess gets high with a hustler named Sportin' Life, then hides out with the only Catfish Row denizen who'll have her, the crippled beggar (this is the '30s, mind you) — Porgy. They fall in love. She sings "I Loves You, Porgy," knowing full well their love is doomed because she is.

I haven't seen a live production, but I did watch the 1959, out-of-print Otto Preminger film starring Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, and Sammy Davis Jr. The music, of course, is a gift and a revelation, but the film is kind of icky. Harry Belafonte reportedly turned down the role of Porgy, and Poitier admitted years later to feeling ashamed that he took it. Little wonder: Porgy's not exactly progressive. In the film, at least, he's more than happy as a dim beggar living in a basement hovel — so happy he sings about it in another classic song, "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."

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Related: Wanting more, Interview: Max Raabe, Bach beat, More more >
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