“Porgy and Bess,” George Gershwin’s celebrated folk opera, will play at the M.V. Film Center on Sunday, Feb. 23, in a special encore screening at 1 pm. Originally adapted from DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, it is a live filmed version of the Metropolitan Opera performance, opening the popular Met series carried by the Film Center. When it premiered in London, James Robinson’s production, directed by David Robertson, represents the first time the opera has been performed at the Met in 30 years.
“Porgy and Bess” is set in Catfish Row, the segregated Charleston, S.C., black tenement on the waterfront during the 1920s. Porgy, played by bass-baritone Eric Owens, is a disabled beggar who falls in love with Bess, a soprano played by Angel Blue. Bess has a lover, Crown (Warren Coleman), a stevedore who is violent and possessive. The black world of Catfish Row is represented as one of poverty, gambling, drugs, violence, and sex.
Despite his disability, Porgy attempts to rescue Bess from Crown’s clutches. Sportin’ Life (Frederick Ballentine) plies Bess with the drug called “happy dust,” even when she resists. In addition to Porgy and Bess’s love affair, fishermen, stevedores, and others who are part of the waterfront, make up the opera’s characters.
Renowned composer George Gershwin created “Porgy and Bess” with DeBose Heyward, and his brother, Ira Gershwin, wrote the lyrics. The opera premiered in 1935 and was considered daring for its African American cast of performers. Initially it was not popular, until a 1976 Houston rendition, which became its best known and most frequently performed version. Its most popular songs include “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” and “Ain’t Necessarily So.” “Summertime” has been recorded by Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and Nina Simone. Influenced by the Gullah community on James Island, the music is also known for its jazz-oriented music.
Such African American performers who have appeared in the opera include Leontyne Price, Sidney Poitier, Cab Calloway, and Maya Angelou. In 1935 its world premiere was held in Boston. A 1959 adaptation starring Dorothy Dandridge was directed by Otto Preminger. During WW II, the performance, with its Jewish composer using black performers, was considered provocative in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen.
“Porgy and Bess” has generated controversy for its stereotyping of African Americans from the onset, and not just by white critics. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, the civil rights and Black Power movements condemned it as racist.
Gershwin insisted that it be performed exclusively by an African American cast. Calling it racially demeaning, Harry Belafonte turned down the chance to star in the film version. James Baldwin called it “a white man’s vision of Negro life.” When it was scheduled to appear at the segregated National Theatre in Washington, D.C., the cast threatened not to perform unless it was integrated. In a debate with Gershwin, playwright Lorraine Hansbury said such stereotypes “constitute bad art.” The requirement that the cast be all black has remained in effect. A chorus of black singers was hired by the Met.
Information and tickets for “Porgy and Bess” are available at mvfilmsociety.com.