ENO’s Porgy and Bess is a musical triumph that tackles, however imperfectly, black cultural representation.
The first performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was in 1935 at the Colonial theatre, Boston. Eighty-three years on, in late 2018, we saw the opera’s first performance by the English National Opera (ENO). This seminal work, set in a poor African-American quarter of segregated Charleston, South Carolina, was controversial from its debut. By insisting on an all-black ensemble Gershwin was turning his back on the popular but degrading fashion for minstrelsy, in which white performers blacked up their skin and performed both sentimental and insulting portrayals of African-Americans. In fact, many of the debates surrounding Porgy and Bess on its first performance still resonate with present day concerns around cultural appropriation, representation and the possibility of white artists dealing sensitively with black narratives.
Porgy and Bess developed in a serpentine way; first as a novel, then a play and eventually an opera. Porgy, the novel, was a bestseller in 1925, written by a Southern gentleman-poet, Dubose Heyward. Heyward grew up in Charleston, a city in which races were domestically intimate yet socially segregated, and he developed an early interest in the music and dialect of the black community around him. A notice in The Charleston News and Courier formed the spark for his novel: it was a news report on Samuel Smalls, a local, disabled beggar famed for his goat-drawn cart, who had tried to shoot his girlfriend.
In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance sprang into life with the publication of groundbreaking works by black authors such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. These writers aimed to represent the tumultuous reality of African-American life in all its difficulty and creativity. It should not surprise us, though, that despite the flowering of black art during this period, the most popular and financially successful works were by white writers who found sensational stories from the black world with which to titillate white readers and audiences. Nigger Heaven by Carl Van Vechten, Paul Green’s In Abraham’s Bosom and The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill all used stereotypes of black violence, hyper-sexuality and amorality to huge acclaim. They were even popular among progressive audiences who saw these works as antidotes to the openly racist propaganda of popular films such as Birth Of A Nation by D.W Griffiths.
The novel Porgy also portrays ‘Catfish Row’ as a place just beyond white civility: brawny, oversexed Crown, the promiscuous and cocaine-addled Bess, the impoverished and pathetic Porgy, and the sleazy drug dealer Sportin’ Life, lead the action in an otherwise humble and illiterate world. Even now, in the overwhelmingly white and wealthy audience of the English National Opera, the disjuncture between those watching and those being watched seems uncomfortable. The over-preponderance of works focusing on black poverty, crime and addiction – from ‘Porgy’ to ‘Precious’ – somehow making social divisions wider rather than narrowing them the way art can and should.
One notable difference between the Porgy and Bess of the 1930s and the one produced for modern audiences is the absence of the ‘N word’ throughout the libretto. This is one way in which black audiences are now part of the calculation in a way they were not then. But it is also a decision that alters the real setting of the play and perhaps masks or sanitises the culture of that time. The book The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, And Why by Jabari Asim investigates this ugly word, which he describes as ‘as American as freedom, liberty, justice and equality,’ and argues it shouldn’t be used unless the historical truth requires it. However, the clanging use of the N-word in Django Unchained – a historical farce directed by Quentin Tarantino – felt intended to spark a little thrill of excitement in a largely young, male and white audience, rather than to add any realism, and was heavily criticised by African-American directors including Spike Lee. Tarantino has also shown an anachronistic commitment to portraying African-Americans as symbols of danger and ‘cool’, portrayals which play on 1970s ‘Blaxploitation’ films but arguably have an older affinity to black caricatures within minstrelsy too.
In some senses, Porgy and Bess is a more political and sympathetic look at African-American society than either the poverty porn of films like Precious or the violent fantasy of Django Unchained. The swooning opening chorus of ‘Summertime’ in Porgy and Bess, a lullaby reminiscent of the gospel, ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’, contains all the hope and love that any mother would have for their child, but especially of a mother who knows their child’s life will be full of peril, of oppression, and of cruel limitations. There is also a striking sequence within the opera, where the people of Catfish Row are forced to contribute money to the funeral of Robbins before the police steal his corpse away and gift it to a white medical school. It is details like these that make clear the many sinister humiliations of segregated life, details that informed and educated an audience that expected to just be entertained. Uncomfortable truths, such as the use of medical experimentation and eugenics on African-American communities, are still too brutal for mainstream audiences. It is notable that Porgy and Bess tackled that reality while the film, The Help, released in 2011, had a much more saccharine and limited interpretation of the impact of segregation on the Deep South.
Porgy and Bess is a musical triumph and its staging by the English National Opera was a great success. The incredible all-black cast, drawn from the United States, Britain, South Africa, Germany and New Zealand, breathed fresh life into its almost century-old libretto. Both Gershwin and Heyward had wanted black performers to make the work their own and in this production they certainly did.
The opera left me wondering what has changed since 1935. Are black novelists, playwrights, and composers any more free to write works that challenge stereotypes of black dysfunction? Are white artists any more nuanced in their portrayal of the ‘other’? My gut feeling is that we haven’t travelled as far as we imagine in this near-century of transition.
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton, ENO