I don’t want to review the misleadingly titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess—really, what am I going to tell you that you don’t already know about Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier and how they hold an audience and deliver a song & etc? Take that as read. What I’d really like to do, in the wake of the controversy that has attended this production, is simply consider it, and what this revisionist version brings up.
Let’s start at the source, with the original.
On the one hand, you have a story of poor, Southern blacks creative by a collective of white writers—novelist-librettist-lyricist DuBose Heyward, composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin—who may not have understood the black experience from “within the skin,” but who did the most sincere and thorough research (combined with getting to know and/or having lived-worked with and/or having known members of that community) of which they were capable. From this they created a kind of folk tale, populated by larger-than-life archetypes who had big behaviors, big passions and big superstitions. These white artists would have told you that they were painting a sympathetic portrait of a milieu and a specific sub-culture of society, and that bigotry was the last thing on their minds (indeed, in the cameos made by while police officers, it is white racist society that is a clear villain).
On the other hand, many blacks, even those who might acknowledge the point, would claim that nonetheless, such well-intentioned homages to “American Negroes” as they were then oft thought of, also implicitly presented the sub-culture as something other and separate, more prone to subservience and superstition and folksiness—and were therefore also more prone to be seen as universally representative. Such a response from blacks goes back to the days of the opera’s premiere in the ‘30s; coming from the ranks of an increasingly empowered African-American community in the New Millennium, even after many made peace with the piece (in the wake of the Houston Opera revival of the ‘70s), it inspired a more pro-active type of accommodation. So a creative team of black artists—female black artists, at that—director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzi-Lori Parks (to adapt the libretto) and composer Diedre L. Murray (to adapt the music)—set about to reclaim Porgy and Bess for a new millennium sensibility. Remember the concept of reclamation. Because it’s key.
For the sake of the philosophical muse, I’m going to sidestep the notion that if you option the rights to a work, or get an estate’s permission to alter and adapt, you essentially have the right to do as you will (unless or until such time as the rightsholder or estate—if they have any contractual approvals during the development process—decides to pull the plug). For the sake of the muse I’m going to maintain, further, that since Porgy and Bess was already a work of musical theatre that is itself an adaptation (of Debose Heyward’s original novel Porgy and his and his wife Dorothy’s straight-play adaptation) in which rights to an underlying story had vested (i.e. merged legally for the creation of an exclusive musical work) that this is not quite the same thing as an adaptation from one medium to another. And finally I’m going to take the elitist (and naively idealist) view (and believe me I know how naïve; I could tell you stories…) that theatre holds everybody to a higher standard.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: You cannot deny the pleasure of an audience. Certain kinds of audience reactions are unequivocal, and at the current revival of Porgy and Bess, the audience is ecstatic. That’s a fact and—I mean this—more power to everybody because of it. I’m going to suggest, though, that the audience reaction is at least as much due to the strength of the source story, the preserved score and the performances as anything else. Because another audience—a Broadway musical theatre audience at that—went nuts in the ‘70s when the Houston Grand Opera reclaimed the opera by simply doing the opera. All of it. And the notion of whittling the piece down to a more manageable musical theatre length and style for a successful commercial run is hardly new either; that goes back to 1942.
But what distinguishes this version from all others is the addition of ambivalence and self-awareness in the character portrayals. And the reduction of superstition and ignorance as factors determining their behavior. These are poverty-stricken blacks, and few of them are complex individuals—but they’re not in any way child-like. They have a certain limited sense of the world beyond Catfish Row…news gets through.
Thus, for example…Bess’s addictions are choices—as in the original, she reverts to them out of despair, but never out of an absolute certainty of hopelessness. Nowhere is this more in evidence than after Porgy kills Crown and gets arrested (though without incriminating evidence to convict him). Everyone’s fear is that Porgy will crack under the pressure of seeing Crown’s body laid out in the morgue. With that as a pretext, Sportin’ Life endeavors to lure Bess back to the dark side. In the original, he essentially tells her the case is closed, that she has nothing left. But here, in his seduction he also utters these words to Bess: “Even if Porgy beats the rap…” No matter that Sportin’ Life poisons the possibility with his next phrase, it has still been offered; and to go with Sportin’ Life, knowing that Porgy just might beat the rap, she has to actively shun the notion that hope, even compromised hope, is worthwhile.
Similarly, there’s Porgy. In the original a youngish man, at his oldest in this early 30s, with useless legs, who gets around on a wheeled pallet he propels with his arms, giving him unusual upper body strength (he also has a wagon he hooks up to a goat). When he returns from the holding cells to find Bess gone, he collapses in grief; but then he decides he will go to New York and find her. In the original version, “legless” Porgy bellows, “Bring me my goat!” And when nobody rises to the command, he adds juice to it: “Won’t nobody bring me my goat?” And the goat is brought. He has no idea where New York is; all anyone can tell him is that it’s “a thousand miles from here,” “way up North past de Custom House.” But he takes off anyway, with naïve determination. He will not, of course, get anywhere near New York. Which adds an ineffable sweetness to the tragedy.
In the Diane Paulus version, though, Porgy's physical ailment is someewhat altered. This is a walking Porgy: a fellow with a deformed, twisted leg who limps along as best he can using a cane. He’s a strapping, hairy chested man of middle-age too; minus the leg, he might not look out of place on the cover of a Harlequin Kimani Romance Novel. And this Porgy, when he wants to get up, doesn’t bellow. He pleads, “Bring me my cane.” And when no one does, he cries, even more plaintively, “Oh, won’t nobody bring me my caaaaane?” And in that plaintiveness there is an absolutely clear subtext: This Porgy knows how far New York is! This Porgy understands that the odds are against him. He knows what he’s asking. And as this Porgy leaves Catfish Row, you have serious reason to believe that somehow, somehow, he’ll get to New York, find Bess and beat the crap out of Sportin’ Life for good measure. Which means we’re going out on a note of hope. However small that note is, as insufficient as the same iota was for Bess to maintain her faith, it’s enough to keep Porgy’s faith burning bright; and it resonates with the audience as the possibility of triumph. And that can be just as moving…but it sure is different.
Now let’s leave Porgy and Bess aside for a moment. Let’s examine the business of reclaiming a story. For reasons I won’t delineate here, I’ve spent much of the last half-year or more steeped in Russian literature from the first half of the 20th Century, and the latter-half-century-into-new-millennium cinematic adaptations of same. What’s fascinating about Russian adaptations of their own classics is their degree of faithfulness, something which the West only reaches for occasionally. In terms of novels, any dialogue there is to be lifted will be lifted; any structure that can be preserved will be preserved; any structure that won’t translate directly from prose to film is reframed to approximate translation. Movie adaptations are long and split into two parts; miniseries take as long as they need to complete their stories.
This becomes even more serious business when the story in question has first been dramatized in the West, especially by way of Hollywood. Let’s take Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Basis of a big hit David Lean film of 1965. But also the basis of an 11-part, eight hour 2006 Russian miniseries. Here’s the miniseries director Alexandr Proshkin on the subject. “Please understand, I have great respect for David Lean's film. But it is of its time. And it is American.” Mr. Proshkin said that David Lean sought an idealized Slavic beauty for Lara and thus missed an essential point: in Pasternak's book, she has a Belgian father and French mother, making her an exotic in her own land. “This is a nuance that you can see only from within. That's why Lara's beauty is not a fair Russian beauty. She's a European free person, absolutely free, with no Russian complexes.” A director named Ivan Dykhovychny wrote of the Lean version, “If it is possible to make a film about Russia that would have nothing in common with Russia, or with the revolution, or with our passion, it is Doctor Zhivago.” The most amusing comment came from the miniseries star, Oleg Menshikov, who played the title role (assayed by Omar Sharif in the David Lean film). He said that he found the Lean film “a bit funny,” but admitted to humming “Lara’s Theme” (the filmscore’s signature melody) throughout the miniseries filming. (These quotes come from a February 2006 New York Times story about the mimiseries called Time to Come Home, Zhivago reported by Steven Lee Myers.)
So here’s the thesis. White people don’t know the black experience from the inside (unless they’re John Howard Griffin). Western people don’t know the Russian experience from the inside. Rich WASPs don’t connect to the essence of Borscht Belt Jews. Nobody who hasn’t breathed the air of common experience, culture, ancestry and sensibility can truly replicate what it’s like inside somewhere else. It’s not even a question of empathy, sensitivity or humanism. It’s the nuances that insiders take for granted because they’re organically linked to a fine web of constant, daily associations…that outsiders can’t even see, or don’t register as consequential.
But here’s the conundrum.
When the Russians reclaim Doctor Zhivago, what they’re saying in effect is, We’ve gone back to the source. The source is ours. This is how the book was written. Therefore this is how the dramatization should be done.
However, when an African American creative team reclaims a work like Porgy and Bess, the message becomes, We deem the source inadequate. How it was written no longer holds. It matters not that it wasn’t ours, it purports to speak for us, therefore we are making it our own. This is how the dramatization ought to be.
That’s really the issue. How valid is that argument? How valid is the ownership on either side of the line? (And not incidentally, why is the controversy so much hotter with Porgy and Bess when another creative team wrought similarly motivated changes to Flower Drum Song?)
I certainly have my feelings about it, and as feelings, they’re pretty definite. But what I don’t have is a definitive answer. I don't think there is one.
How purely American it all seems, though.
Consideration now over.
Discuss amongst yourselves…
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