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You are in: London > People > Interviews > Musical Masterpiece: Racist Plot?

Cast of Porgy and Bess

Cast of Porgy and Bess

Musical Masterpiece: Racist Plot?

George Gershwin's classic Porgy and Bess has been recognised as a musical masterpiece. But the libretto or narrative which it explores has over the years been decribed as racist by many African-Americans. Kurt Barling examines it

Kurt Barling examines the argument that some critics have made, that the racial stereotypes; poor cripple, prostitute, pimp and drug dealer are a slur on people of African descent. 

The first jazz album that came into my possession when I was a teenager was Porgy and Bess.   That version was recorded in 1957 by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and remains amongst my prized possessions. 

I played the album it so many times I could virtually smell the cotton in the rendition of Summertime.  It’s difficult not to fall head over heels for the music with its mixture of spirituals, soul, blues and jazz.  

At the time though there were still very few black characters in high culture and many civil rights activists felt the black lifestyle it portrayed was too brutal.

Summertime itself is probably one of the most covered songs in the history of popular music along with Yesterday by the Beatles.  

The score is recognised as Gershwin’s innovative attempt to arrange a synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms.  His aim was to create a unique folk opera to be performed only by black actors.

The story is of Porgy a poverty stricken cripple who falls in love with a prostitute Bess in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina.   It is his attempt to draw her away from the influence of Crown, her pimp and another admirer Sportin’ Life a drug dealer.

Clarke Peters as Porgy

Clarke Peters as Porgy

The writer of the original story DuBose Hayward who collaborated on the original 1935 production with Gershwin, was a white southerner. 

He empathised with the plight of the African-American but in a reflection on the times thought his oeuvre reflected the “noble savage” dignity of the characters he portrayed.  It’s easy to see how audiences at the time would have responded positively to his narrative.

The opera was performed in Europe during the war.  In fact it was premiered at the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen in 1943.  So outraged were the Nazi occupiers when it played to packed houses, its reputed they threatened to blow the theatre up if the production wasn’t promptly cancelled.

It was revived after the war in the United States and attracted performers like Maya Angelou and Todd Duncan.   A filmed version starring Sidney Poitier (after Harry Belafonte turned it down because it demeaned black people) was produced by Samule Goldwyn in 1959.   After that the work encountered the civil rights and black power era. 

It was during this period that scorn was poured on a narrative which one commentator said should be confined to a museum and not seen by any self-respecting African-American.

The argument went like Uncle Tom’s Cabin it was emblematic of the white man’s distorted perspective on the black man.  More critically, that the only acceptable Black people to the White mainstream were the toadying types called “Uncle Tom”.

Of course it is difficult for later generations not to judge earlier generations by latter day standards.  

Dickens was a great writer but there can be little doubt the portrayal of Fagin was entirely unfavourable to the Jews.  Nevertheless Oliver Twist remains a great parable on poverty, greed and the battle between good and bad in human nature.

As the racial controversies of the sixties and seventies have waned, and the emergence of an accepted position on equality has taken root, the Opera Porgy and Bess has found itself revived and less reviled.

The further away we get from the period it describes, the more of a piece of Americana or American history, it becomes. 

In other words it is much easier now to differentiate between the particularities of the characters in Porgy’s Charleston and the variety of lifestyles lived by Black people in America and Britain. 

The narrative is as applicable to non-black communities and that is now widely recognised.

1953 production of Porgy and Bess

1953 production of Porgy and Bess

Director Sir Trevor Nunn’s musical theatre production is for him a natural development of his Operatic achievement at Glynebourne twenty years ago.   

Nunn argues that the costs of attending an Opera prevent most people from experiencing the live storytelling and music.  By convincing the Gershwin family to allow him to transform Porgy and Bess into a musical he hopes to bring it to a far wider (read less privileged) audience.  

In line with his ambition when he ran the National Theatre, Nunn also wants to open it up to a more diverse audience.

In this his leading man, Clarke Peters, concurs.    Peters interprets the Porgy in the early part of the piece as a thoroughly disreputable character.  It is the character’s transformation into a man of tenderness and integrity when he wants to save Bess that Clarke believes shows there is a way to redemption. 

It is for him a very human story.  The context may be the Black south circa 1900 but the sentiments are universal.

Bar the ignorant, most people can now differentiate between low-life characters and people of African descent.  The portrayal of pimps, prostitutes, poor people and drug dealers are no longer the preserve of particular ethnic groups.  

Although perhaps insufficient, there are more diverse black characterisations available to television and film going audiences.

There has also been a significant shift in the theatrical demographic which makes London a particularly suitable venue for Nunn’s new production.  When he auditioned for his Glynebourne production twenty years ago he ended up with a mostly American cast except for Sir Willard White (Jamaican born but lives in Blackheath). 

When he auditioned for his music theatre production he didn’t need to look beyond talent within the UK and London in particular.   Recent Productions like the Big Life and Simply Heavenly are testament to that.

The production is probably well suited to the Savoy theatre on the Strand which can help envelope the audience in the music but at the same time is the right size not to smother the intimate moments too.

Both Clarke and Nunn believe the production has the qualities to make it a sustainable piece of musical theatre in London.   I’m inclined to agree because London has the range of theatrical offerings to set this important work in context. 

Over the past thirty odd years, since I first encountered Porgy and Bess, much has changed in our society and the time is probably right to no longer allow the plot to overshadow a work of such musical potency.  

By making it more accessible to a diverse audience it also helps challenge the performers to interpret their roles differently.

Ira Gershwin, George’s brother and collaborative lyricist, made it a stipulation of all productions around the world that the cast is always overwhelmingly Black.  

If it were to last, it could provide a valuable training ground for a new generation of black performers in the heart of the West End.   Although George Gershwin died of a brain tumour when he was 38 and never lived to see the success of his Porgy and Bess, it has delivered a legacy of which he would be justly proud.

Sir Trevor Nunn's production of Porgy and Bess, starring Clarke Peters and Nicola Hughes, opens at the Savoy Theatre on November 9

last updated: 15/05/2008 at 14:29
created: 03/11/2006

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