|Tony Award winner Audra McDonald plays Bess. (MICHAEL J. LUTCH)|
The baggage of ‘Porgy and Bess’
New adaptation’s true test will be how it plays to different audiences
CHANGE IS scary, even when it happens to the theater. So when word came that the American Repertory Theater was “excavating’’ and “modernizing’’ the classic opera “Porgy and Bess,’’ a collective rant rose up among the theater cognoscenti.
There was speculation about how blasphemous, sunny, and pandering this new “Porgy’’ would be - led by Stephen Sondheim, who penned a long, sarcastic letter to The New York Times, railing against those who would dare to critique the original. “Never fear,’’ Sondheim wrote. “They know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.’’ Though he also wrote, “Perhaps it will be wonderful.’’
To be fair, Sondheim was reacting to quotes from the ART folks in a feature story. Maybe if he sees the show, he’ll think it’s wonderful. (I did.) But even so: Is updating a work of art the same thing as trying to improve it? Or is that simply what theater always does - particularly theater with such brilliance and baggage as “Porgy?’’
With “Porgy and Bess,’’ after all, the baggage is part of the story. Black critics and actors, over many decades, have complained that the show focused on the seamiest parts of African-American life, seen through the lens of well-meaning, well-to-do whites. It’s a critique that could apply just as pointedly to modern works, such as the book and movie “The Help.’’
It also applies, in a way, to the ART’s audience demographic; at a performance this week, the patrons were almost entirely white. Yes, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ - so named at the insistence of the Gershwin estate - will live and die by the theater elite, through costly ticket sales in New York. (The Cambridge run, through Oct. 2, is sold out.)
But the true test of this adaptation might be how it plays to different audiences entirely. Such as the high school sophomores at Dorchester’s Boston Collegiate Charter School who will get discounted tickets to the show later this month, and who this week took part in a workshop by ART students and staff. The students learned about how the show has, at times, been a catalyst for racial progress, said Brendan Shea, the ART’s outreach and education associate. How the creators insisted on an all-black cast, instead of white actors in blackface. How the lead actors refused to perform at Washington D.C.’s National Theatre if the audience weren’t integrated - and so, at least briefly, it was.
The students heard different versions of the famous opening song, “Summertime.’’ Then they set out to create their own versions, using some original lyrics, adding some of their own. One group, Shea said, came up with a skit about how best to sing to a baby: using “Summertime’’ as gentle melody, or as rock music. The song, they said, made them think about how communities debate childrearing.
When they see the show - the close-knit community of Catfish Row - they might understand how right they were. In a way, these students were taking part in a long tradition of adding to “Porgy and Bess’’ and subtracting from it.
In 1942, an actress who played Bess refused to sing an offensive word, so Ira Gershwin rewrote the lyrics to excise it. Which makes playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s adaptation - which tamps down some of the dialect, eliminates racial stereotypes - seem like progress, not sacrilege. Maybe because the adaptation works so well - or maybe because the original story is still there, brilliant and beautiful - the ART’s version of “Porgy and Bess’’ feels like a period piece, but not an artifact. It’s a character story, a commentary on community and temptation.
Through the ART’s outreach program, it will be seen by some 700 students, as well as residents of a veterans’ shelter, an assisted living community, a support service for homeless mothers and their children. They will not be experts in opera or theater historians. They might not know who Stephen Sondheim is. But if “Porgy and Bess’’ speaks to them - well, that will be wonderful.