14 July 2016

"Bess, you is my woman now"

"From Trevor Nunn's 1993 operatic revival [actually a 1986 production that was videotaped for TV in 1993] of The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess. In this heart-warming scene, Porgy (Willard White) declares his feelings for Bess (Cynthia Haymon) who finally realizes, embraces, and declares her feelings for him. Back Story: After everyone in the hamlet of Catfish Row understandably turned their backs on Bess (the then wild and loose girlfriend of the murderer Crown), Porgy - the village cripple - takes her in. What follows is a Bess' transformation into a lady. However, she still doesn't have feelings for Porgy until this magical exchange."
The Wikipedia entry notes that this musical has long been attended with controversy:
From the outset, the opera's depiction of African Americans attracted controversy. Problems with the racial aspects of the opera continue to this day. Virgil Thomson, a white American composer, stated that "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935." Duke Ellington stated "the times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms." (Ellington's response to the 1952 Breen revival was, however, almost completely the opposite. His telegram to the producer read: "Your Porgy and Bess the superbest, singing the gonest, acting the craziest, Gershwin the greatest.") Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they, too, had concerns that their characters might play into a stereotype that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs and solved their problems with their fists.

A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theatre Project, was cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African American life. The director initially envisioned that they would perform the play in a "Negro dialect." These Pacific Northwest African American actors, who did not speak in such dialect, would be coached in it. Florence James attempted a compromise of dropping the use of dialect but the production was canceled.

Another production of Porgy and Bess, this time at the University of Minnesota in 1939, ran into similar troubles. According to Barbara Cyrus, one of the few black students then at the university, members of the local African-American community saw the play as "detrimental to the race" and as a vehicle that promoted racist stereotypes. The play was cancelled due to pressure from the African-American community, which saw their success as proof of the increasing political power of blacks in Minneapolis–St. Paul.
Posted not for the content, but for the harmony of this particular duet, which I've always enjoyed. 


  1. I have loved the music and humor of "Porgy and Bess" ever since I saw the movie version starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. I have looked for it to be released on VHS and later on CD, but to no avail. I was told variously that the film had been destroyed or that someone had purchased it and all rights to it and refused to release it to the public.

    It's a shame, because it is such a wonderful production, but I can understand that many black people would consider it to be demeaning. We white people have not destroyed movies that portrayed white people as hicks or hillbillies or cowboys or crooks, but I suppose we take for granted that those who see those productions know that we don't all speak or act the way of those people in the movies.

    Perhaps it's because we are more secure in our position in society that we don't worry about a movie ruining our position, while blacks are still fighting for their rights and position in the mosaic we call society. I understand their unwillingness to be seen as ignorant stereotypes that haven't existed for many, many years. They have fought hard for their place and are still fighting today for something they earned a long time ago -- and yet the fight continues. Perhaps they'll feel differently about it when they have finally reached the precipice of respect they so deserve -- when they can feel secure and safe and respected by everyone else in this country. I hope it will happen in my lifetime.

    1. If only there was a bit more of your empathy in today's society...


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