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Who doesn't need nuttin'?

Porgy and Bess comes to town, checkered past and all

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Porgy and Bess

You've got to at least ask a few questions about an opera based on a novel that Al Jolson was keen on making into a musical, one in which Jolson would play the lead role: that of a disabled black man who sings that he's "got plenty o' nuttin', and nuttin's plenty for me." When the poster boy for blackface likes the way you portray your Negroes, well, it's not as bad as a pointy-hooded nod from the local Klansman, but still ... .

Jolson never got around to adapting Porgy, by novelist DuBose Heyward, which is probably just as well. It kept the way clear for George Gershwin to compose Porgy and Bess, presented by the Atlanta Opera this week. Gershwin saved the story from shoe-polished minstrels, though critiques of its depiction of African-Americans remained.

"In depicting any race ... you try to avoid the caricature of, 'Well, look at the cute blackface dancers up there,'" says Stefano Lano, conductor of the Atlanta Opera's production. "Yet Gershwin was very much an integrationist in his time."

Porgy found a good steward in Gershwin. He had originally wanted to use the story for an opera commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Opera. But the Met did not permit black performers and Gershwin refused to have the story performed in blackface. So instead he premiered the opera at Boston's Colonial Theatre in 1935. (The Met didn't get around to staging the work until 1985.) With his brother Ira, who co-wrote the libretto with DuBose, Gershwin refused performance rights to segregated opera houses and prevented apartheid-era South Africa from producing the opera with a white cast.

Porgy and Bess takes place on Catfish Row, a poor neighborhood outside of Charleston, S.C., in the 1920s. Porgy, the disabled black man who Jolson wanted to play, is in love with Bess, a woman of ill repute. Bess' man, Crown, kills another man over a gambling dispute. With Crown in hiding but still a threat, and drug dealer Sportin' Life trying to steal Bess away to New York, Porgy attempts to both protect and win the heart of Bess, eventually having to turn to violence himself.

In the opera, drugs, violence and promiscuity are all wrapped up in the Gullah culture of South Carolina, which Gershwin and DuBose romanticized for its close ties to traditional African spirituality. The story is brought to us by a hero, Porgy, who is hobbled and sings about how lucky he is to be living in poverty. So yeah, some folks didn't much like this depiction of the African-American experience.

"I think it had a lot to do with the time it was written," says Larry Marshall, director of the Atlanta Opera production. "There were very few pieces written on African-Americans. Suddenly you have this piece being shown all over the world portraying just one segment of the African-American community. People didn't want this to be, 'This is all that is.'"

But the prominence of Porgy and Bess on the international stage was not based solely on artistic merit or entertainment value. In the 1950s, the opera toured in part on the U.S. Department of State's dime, even making an appearance in Soviet Moscow. If this was our ambassador, it seemed to be saying to the world: "Our blacks don't mind being poor. They've got simpler needs, more primitive pleasures."

And there actually were plenty of alternative portrayals available at the time. Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, when artists and intellectuals such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W.E.B. DuBois were redefining the roles of African-Americans. In comparison, Heyward's story and Gershwin's opera seemed to some like a throwback to the Joel Chandler Harris days of tar babies and tricky rabbits, albeit set to a jazzier rhythm and with consequences more dire than landing in a briar patch.

But here's a thorny tangle for you: In 1943, under Nazi occupation, the Danish Royal Opera produced Porgy and Bess in Copenhagen with an all-white cast. "The Nazis were very upset about it," says Lano, "about this American piece being done. ... But what the Danes did was they circled the opera house with police just for protection and kept the performances going. They finally closed it because the Nazis threatened to bomb the opera house, but it became a symbol of resistance, so that when the Nazis would broadcast a propaganda event that was uplifting to the Nazis, right after, the Danes would broadcast 'It Ain't Necessarily So,'" Sportin' Life's skeptical take on the Bible.

So a story that, on the surface of it, might seem like an apologia for segregation and inequality was turned to subversive ends ... or was the subversion there all along?

There's another controversy that has dogged Porgy and Bess from the beginning: the question of what to call it. Is it, as Gershwin claimed, an opera? Or, as others have argued, a musical? Is it something in between: a "folk opera," a "Broadway opera"? The questions seem to come from an unwillingness to take the music seriously. Porgy and Bess is made of rough American stuff: of jazz, of the blues, of spirituals and folk music. In questioning the composition's operatic credentials, critics implicitly belittle musical forms that came in large part from black America -- musical forms that are among America's greatest contributions to the music of the world.

But Gershwin took the music seriously, bringing it into full and equal conversation with European operatic traditions, and, in so doing, he signaled that this was no minstrel show. His characters are simple, credulous folk, but in their music, Gershwin revealed them as eloquent and wise, lifting up their voices for all the world to hear.

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