Achingly melancholy and ironically sublime, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is a bleak, volatile, supremely moving musical, set in the 1930’s African American community of Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a physically disabled man who lives alone, forced to beg to get by. Bess is a cocaine addict and prostitute, under the thumb of Sporting Life, a drug dealer and pimp. Porgy and Bess come to know each other by happenstance, and though they are both fringe dwellers, it’s certainly not love at first sight. Like Sarah in Children of a Lesser God, Bess is less smitten than gradually overwhelmed to find a man who treats her with such respect and tenderness.
Porgy and Bess opens on a sultry Saturday night when the guys are shooting craps and tossing down the liquor, while the women are congregating and visiting. Stakes and tempers escalate, and before they can avoid it, Crown has murdered another man, in a fit of anger. He flees the authorities, but not before claiming Bess as his own. Circumstances throw Bess and Porgy together, and Bess finds herself wanting to start life over again, without degrading herself or turning to “happy dust” for comfort. She and Porgy are just beginning to make a life together when Crown (who’s been hiding on Kittawah Island) attacks Bess on her way back from a picnic. None of this matters to Porgy, whose intense devotion to the lost, downtrodden Bess is unwavering, and enough to bring this critic to tears.
This is dangerous, provocative material, especially considering it premiered on Broadway in October of 1935. There are numerous shows today that don’t begin to explore issues like racism, misery, self-loathing, exploitation, oppression, machismo, the caste system, with the rich, unblinking empathy that George and Ira Gershwin (composers) and DuBose and Dorothy Hayward (Book and Lyrics) brought to them. Adapted from DuBose’s novel Porgy, released in 1925, the jazzy, jaunty, somber, often steadfastly optimistic score is haunting and nuanced, wrenching and enchanting. One suspects the tumultuous presence of messy, raw, genuine truth when this show grabs us by the scruff, and has the audacity to present no easy answers, yet has the chutzpah to hope in the face of despair. Rarely have I seen such a trenchant, fearless and vivid tragedy, with its sybaritic, defiant choreography, thank you, Ronald K. Brown, and sumptuous, poignant intonations, thank you, Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, et al. Rarely have I felt so completely overcome.
The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess closed in December. It was part of The Lexus Broadway Series playing at The Winspear Opera House. 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. attpac.org