White Washing Porgy and Bess
As a rule, I believe there should be no rules or boundaries when it comes to art. Nothing is sacred. And it must be that way to preserve creativity and experimentation which lead to sometimes great works not bound by limitation.
We must respect the intentions of those who create the art.
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is set in Catfish Row, a fictitious black tenement (once, a mansion of the aristocracy) on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina and centers on African American characters in 1930’s America.
At a time when Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess he was a popular composer – a hitmaker of his day. And yet he decided to compose a work that would challenge audiences of the day, if for no other reason than the fact it centered around African Americans who at the time were at best, 2nd class citizens. Not exactly a guarantee of success like American in Paris or Rhapsody in Blue.
Through the years, there have been mixed reaction (i.e. emotion) to the subject matter of P & G. Some suggest that it is filled with negative stereotypes. I see it as more a sign of the times, based off Porgy: A Play in Four Acts is a play by Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward, adapted from the short novel by DuBose Heyward. The Heyward’s insisted the play be performed by African Americans, which in 1925 was pushing boundaries.
Gershwin, inspired by the play and novel, created P & G and followed the lead of the Heywards, insisting the musical be performed by African Americans. And that was not easy to swallow for many production companies. And had it not been for Gershwin’s music, we may not be talking about P & G today. Songs like “Summertime” have kept the musical relevant.
Awful casting decisions have been made through the years, including many using white players in black face. One would have to imagine the reluctance of companies in certain sections of the country to cast black actors is a reason. Another could be a lack of African American artists to fill the roles.
It goes against the wishes of the Gershwin and now his estate to cast non-African American performers.
P & G had a bit of a renaissance in the 80’s with it’s first performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Before that, it suffered from the perception of it being filled with stereotypes, not accurately portraying African Americans in a positive light.
On March 27, 1943, the opera had its European premiere at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. Performed during the Nazi occupation of the country, this performance was notable for being performed by an all-white cast made up in blackface. After 22 sold-out performances, the Nazis closed the production. Other all-white or mostly-white productions in Europe, reflecting contemporary demographics in the countries, took place in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1945 and 1950, and Gothenburg and Stockholm, Sweden in 1948.
Which brings me to modern day Budapest.
The Hungarian State Opera recently staged a predominantly white cast in a new version of Porgy and Bess, which takes place in an undetermined location but is reminiscent of a 2015 Budapest train station.
General Director of the opera, Szilveszter Okovacs, claims that the point of this opera is to “take it out of context so it can’t relate to any specific place.”
The HSO has gotten a fair amount of flack for staging the production in this manner. Gershwin’s intentions were clear for what Porgy and Bess should be. The question then becomes what right does a company have to change the way they present it?
You would think the world would be less hung-up on race in this modern day, and yet there are times it feels like it is weirder than ever. Banning books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn” because of the “N-word” would have their authors scratching their heads. Taking offense to the use of the word opposed to understanding the meaning of the use of the word is something lost on the Duluth MN school district who recently banned the books from their curriculum.
And that is a shame. Because I can’t think of two books that perhaps demonstrate evil regarding racial problems of the past. Duluth is white washing the curriculum to avoid talking about historical fact.
Back to the Hungarian “re-write” of Porgy and Bess. It does seem a little ridiculous that a story which is narrow in focus to examine the life of African-Americans in 1930s America would be changed to modern day Budapest with a white cast – and still call itself Porgy and Bess.
It’s as if the Director wanted to perform this wonderful music that Gershwin wrote, but make it more “friendly” for his audience. Maybe too similar to the 40’s performances in Nazi occupied territories. And while I bristle at insinuating or comparing anything to the Nazis, one must examine and question the intentions here. Porgy and Bess is Porgy and Bess, with clear intentions by the authors of the novel and play and subsequently George Gershwin.
Given his reluctance to allow Al Jolson to perform the production in black face, one would have a hard time believing he would be happy with this most current performance.
What the Hungarian State Opera has produced is not Porgy and Bess. It is their own narrative set to the music of Porgy and Bess. Which is a mess and misses the point completely.