Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, With a Pinch of Ethnic Authenticity

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Rashid Mohamed, Political Reporter

Actor Erica Papillion-Posey’s vocals invigorate your soul as the words to the classic song ‘Summertime’ roll over her quivering lips, in the opening scene to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

In an attempt to adapt the classical opera for the musical theater stage, director donnie l. betts (lower case deliberate) assembled a small but commanding orchestra alongside a melodious and talented cast of African-American actors, who put on a scintillating performance at the Aurora Fox Art Center last Saturday.

Originally an opera composed in 1934 by the prolific Gershwin brothers, ‘Porgy and Bess’ was first performed by an entire cast of African-American singers; a courageous endeavor for its time.

Set in Catfish Row, a small fishing community in Charleston, South Carolina, the play centers on the tragic love story of the crippled beggar Porgy and his beloved Bess, who is still enthralled by her former beau Crown, and the fast life of drugs and booze.

After Crown commits murder and flees, Bess finds shelter and comfort in the arms of Porgy. But just as the folks of Catfish Row begin to accept Porgy’s new love, Crown returns, changing the lives of everyone forever.

“It’s about a community that’s trying to survive and thrive against all odds,” says director betts.

Though the original opera told the story of an impoverished black community in Charleston, the entire production crew, “down to the stage hands and musicians didn’t include a single black person,” explains Jodel Charles, musical director of the Aurora Fox Arts Center.

This prompted the Gershwin and Heyward Estate to commission African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks to rework the play for the musical theater stage.

Porgy, the novel first written by author Dubois Heyward, was initially adapted by his wife into a play in 1927.

While some question any ‘tampering’ of the original, this newer version replaces the opera’s sung recitatives with spoken dialogue, giving the characters of Catfish Row a more authentic voice.

The play will feature at the Aurora Fox Art Center each weekend, until the 1st of January 2017.

For more on Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, click here.