A few months ago, my husband took me to a play in New York City as a birthday gift. I asked to attend “Porgy and Bess,” which is considered an American opera, to see a favorite singer/actress, Audra McDonald, in the lead female role of Bess, a tough and physically demanding role. This revival of George Gershwin’s American “opera” took place at The Richard Rodger’s Theater. The play ran until September 19 and won a Tony for Audra McDonald.
The characters in Porgy and Bess were mostly all African American; only a few white actors had parts as policemen. Occasionally, the lighting actually erased racial distinctions and color was neutered. In the story, poor fishermen and their families formed a tight community on Catfish Row in South Carolina where the men worked hard all week, and on Saturday, they played cards betting their wages and drinking to forget the labor of the week.
The male lead, Norm Lewis as Porgy, claims our affections as a sweet man, with a badly deformed leg. He lives alone amidst the other fishermen, working and playing with the men. Enter antagonist Philip Boynton as Crown, a pimp and hustler, bringing his drug addicted woman, his sexy wife Bess, into the group. Trouble erupts, and Crown must flee leaving Bess alone. The women of Catfish Row reject Bess for her loose morals but kindhearted Porgy takes her in.
Alas, that is how their great love grows. All is peaceful until Crown returns, demoralizing a changed Bess. She goes with him and is seduced by his shaming of her. In her despair, she succumbs once more to “happy dust,” drugs plied on her by the immoral and opportunistic drug dealer, “Sporting’ Man.” She feels worthless.
Porgy again reclaims Bess’s heart and instills hope, but she is broken, and Crown does not give up. She belongs to him, even though Mariah, the strong older mother figure in the community, has performed a divorce ceremony to split them, making Bess free to be with Porgy legitimately.
Porgy avenges Bess by fighting Crown, who dies. Now Porgy must answer for murder, though it was circumstantial. The audience’s emotions are up and down and up again. Somehow, there is reconciliation in this adaptation, or it would truly be a great tragedy.
There is great pathos and wrenching emotion in the solos sung by Bess and Porgy. “I loves you Porgy; you are my man” and the haunting and sensual lullaby, “Summertime.” The devil-may-care “I’ve got plenty of nothin’” sung by Porgy when he happily reveals he and Bess are now lovers. He needs nothing else.
By the end, we were emotionally spent and afterward walked along 46th Street, checking out new plays. We then headed toward the parking lot across from the theatre and noticed a small crowd forming outside the theater. Of course, it was the stage entrance. Excitement rose in me in face of a happening, and I just knew I would speak to Audra McDonald that day. I felt it in my bones. So we crossed, mingled in the group with programs and pens at the ready.
First came that big bad old Crown (Philip Boynton), who was very ebullient. He signed autographs and accommodated fans who wanted to be photographed with him. Do I dare, thought I. Why not? Opportunities come fleetingly so carpe diem. I muscled my way, inch by inch, and sure enough, the jolly “bad guy” laughingly took photos with all of us camera hogs. He loved it, I think. Arm in arm, we smiled for the camera.
Then lo and behold, a very handsome, distinguished Porgy emerged through the yellow door looking 20 years younger! Norm Lewis chatted with his groupies, said he could not allow himself to speak for days before a performance to preserve his magnificent baritone voice. Norm also revealed the need for physical therapy every day to be able to twist and drag his character’s deformed leg during every performance. Stars do suffer for their roles. I asked to take a photo with him, and he so nicely obliged. He is very handsome! I did feel weak kneed in my old age, and it felt good.