Songstress/Actress Alicia Hall in Recital
Porgy and Bess:
Cultural Anachronism or Timeless Masterpiece?
It was the moment all understudy’s on Broadway hope and dream of, the leading lady took the evening off and the understudy got a chance to shine. And I cannot imagine anyone ever shining brighter than Alicia Hall Moran last Tuesday night. Ms. Moran gave a bravura performance singing the role of Bess beside Norm Lewis’ moving performance as Porgy.
She enthralled the audience and left us hungering for more of her magic. That this lovely songbird should so bewitch me was no picayune affair, for I had long ago fell under the spell of the beautiful, sensuous, Audra McDonald, whose voice is a spellbinding instrument capable of levitating one away to heaven…body and soul. Thus Ms. Moran’s performance was a revelation.
It was due to an invitation from my good friend, the internationally renowned artists and cultural impersario Ademola Olugbefola that I happend to experience this magic moment in the theater. I had no particular interests in seeing yet another production of Porgy and Bess, a folk opera about Afro-American life set in a mythical slum of Charleston South Carolina called “Cat Fish Row.”
I had sort of dismissed it as a cultural anachronism created at a time when whites manipulated the Afro-American image to suit their racist fantasies. Composed by George Gershwin, a New York Jew who could not possibly know much about the lives of the characters, which were based on the stereotypical figures in the novel “Porgy” by Dubose Heyward, a white writer who was a native of Charleston.
This work troubles some Afro-American critics, such as Harold Cruse, who justly point out that such an opera was only possible in the first place because of a racial caste system in America at the time; which only permitted works about Afro-Americans to make it in “legitimate” theater if it was written by a white author.
Cruse points out that this situation prompted white artists to pillage black culture for material, and Gershwin and Heywood were emblematic of this cultural trend. The great Harlem Poet Langston Hughes lamented the plight of Afro-American creative artists in his poem, A Note on the Commercial Theater: “You’ve taken my blues and gone.”
However, unlike Dubose’s critics who lambasted the novel and the Opera based on it, Langston Hughes saw it differently. “With his white eyes” Hughes said, Heywood saw “wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive.” And George Gershwin – a gifted musician who loved Afro-American music – played the entire score for a select group of Afro-American artists in the living room of NAACP leader Walter White, before it was publicly performed. Gershwin certainly intended no offense to the black community and sought to transcend the racial gulf between himself and his subject, as well as race and class differences between his subject and the audience –whether racist whites or educated cosmopolitan Afro-Americans.
Thus he concentrated on universal themes: love, hate, jealously, avarice, sexual passion, treachery, honor, etc. in his music based on a libretto largely written by Heywood. Judging by the response of the racially and ethnically diverse audience, composed of people from all over the world, who gave the cast a prolonged standing ovation, Gershwin hit his mark. The majesty of the music transcends the shortcomings of the book and ennobles the characters.
For the classically trained Afro-American singer, especially during the early decades of the 20th century, when Afro-Americans were treated in law and custom as if black and tan skin was a crime, there was virtually no trace of the rich Afro-American musical heritage in the Grand Opera repertoire. Thus notwithstanding the racial stereotypes Porgy was viewed as a unique gift by these singers, with its generous references to Blues and Spirituals. Yet while the black artists loved it; the white critics’ response was another matter.
For the established opera critics with the major newspapers and magazines, it was an enigma. They just didn’t know what to make of it. And the original production in 1931 flopped at the box office. One could attribute this failure to the fact that Porgy opened during the Great Depression; except that Broadway flourished during the depression.
A far more likely explanation is that it just didn’t appeal to the taste of a racist, Eurocentric, opera audience. And Afro-Americans were so strapped for cash most couldn’t fit a Broadway show into their budget; even if it was supposed to be about them. However true greatness will endure and Gershwin is having the last say.
Porgy and Bess
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis on Broadway
Today his opera is recognized as one of the greatest and most original American operas of the 20th century. Ironically, when the score was first recorded the producer used only white singers because he doubted black singers could sing the roles. However the all black cast at the Richard Rogers Theater, a grand Broadway House with killer acoustics, equipped with state of the art lighting and sound, surpasses greatness and approaches the sublime.
They are all triple threats who can act, dance and sing. And they have invested the characters with a dignity far beyond what was envisioned by Heywood or Gershwin. Audra McDonald told the ladies on The View that this was a major consideration for the performers; who spared no effort to make the characters fully human.
Yet after all is said and done, the music was all about the music. The orchestra was magnificent, playing the newly arranged score to perfection while the ensemble sang like a band of angels in the heavens. Soaring above it all was the rich multi-colored soprano voice of Ms. Moran as Bess. It made my soul clap hands and my spirit dance. If you want an enchanted evening at the theater: See this production of George Gershwin’s timeless musical masterpiece!
Audra McDonald and the Cast
(Double click to see Audra sing “My Man is gone)
(Double click to see Audra and Norm Lewis duet)
Harlem, New York
May 24, 2014