Sunday, November 16, 2014

The politics of Porgy

      You can’t write about Chicago and not be interested in race, and I tend to write about African-American issues more than most white columnists do because I find them so important and I’m too reckless to avoid it. Thus when “Porgy and Bess” opened in Chicago in 2008, I saw my chance to explore something that fascinates me: is the depiction of any group exclusively controlled by that particular group, or can others jump in with their perspectives? Obviously, I have a dog in that race. This column appeared six years ago, but Friday I attended the dress rehearsal of "Porgy and Bess" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and feel it is still as current. I wrote the full word that Ira Gershwin cut in 1952; I remember being aghast when my editor at the Sun-Times dashed it, and consider the use of the eusystolism “n-word” a strange and temporary bit of infantilizing, itself offensive, a white-washing of history (and, sadly, current events) for the exquisite sensibilities of a few. If I can be shown photographs of naked Jewish corpses piled high a Dachau, then black readers can stumble across “nigger” in “Huckleberry Finn.” The world needn’t be wallpapered for the sake of children, particular of the things that are being obscured help guide them to understand how it actually was, and is. That word certainly jolts, but I believe it is a necessary jolt.
     Which is why “Porgy and Bess” is still valuable and always timely, since six years make this column not at all out-of-date; I also added a line I learned researching my contest questions about tickets being given a way free to the 1952 production to try to overcome public reluctance to see what was, at the time, seen as practically a minstrel show. And the music, I hasten to add, is sublime. I was whistling “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” all day Saturday.

     A love story between a "lonely cripple" and a "liquor-guzzling slut," set against a backdrop of drug addiction, gambling, murder, mangled syntax and inescapable poverty whose sweetest moment, the opening number "Summertime," is a lullaby sung to a baby who will pass through the hands of three mothers before the play is over. 
     No, "Porgy and Bess" is not exactly a brochure published by the NAACP, and as if its subject matter weren't awkward enough, it was written by three white guys: two Jews, George and Ira Gershwin, and a Southerner, DuBose Heyward.
     Yet, a funny thing happened to this great American opera between its controversial debut on Broadway in 1935 and the magnificent production that opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera in Chicago.
     "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself," sniffed critic Virgil Thomson, "which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935."
     Thomson touches the heart of the issue, not only with "Porgy and Bess," but with a range of cultural flare-ups. Do we judge work by its content or by its creator? Does culture belong to the group that formed it, or can others borrow it for a while?
     Some say they can't. It isn't that Chief Illiniwek's dance is any worse than what's performed every weekend at Native American gatherings; it's that their heritage is being seized and exploited by someone else. Elvis didn't popularize black music; he stole it.
     "Porgy" received the same criticisms.
     "A white man's version of black folkways and characterizations from which their race has fought so painfully to escape," Douglas Watt wrote in the New Yorker. When the opera was performed in the early 1950s in Chicago, civil rights resistance against “Porgy and Bess” was so high that producers had to give away the first week’s worth of tickets—28,000 seats—to get an audience into the opera house.
     My problem with that view is that it's a kind of segregation, suggesting that blacks can only appreciate, understand and write about blacks, and whites can only appreciate, understand and write about whites, because of some barrier that forbids them from peering across and recognizing each other.
     Thus "I Got Plenty of Nothin' " is racially suspect, since the Gershwins imply happy-go-luckiness in Porgy, while—for example—"Baby's Got Back" can't be a racial slur because Sir Mixalot is black.
     That is a political, not an artistic, analysis. I kept thinking about how a disabled advocate would view Porgy, who says things like, "When God make cripple, He mean him to be lonely," and the answer depends on how much you demand that your art flatter your sensibilities. I can enjoy "The Merchant of Venice" even though Shylock isn't the image of the ideal Jew (but then again, those battles are mostly won, while mocking the disabled still carries less stigma than slurring Jews or blacks. The word "cripple" is used again and again in "Porgy;" the word "nigger" was cut out by Ira Gershwin in 1952).
     The bottom line is that African-American artists embraced the work. Both Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier — neither a cream-puff — sang Porgy. The entire cast is black, as required by the Gershwin estate — in reaction, the story goes, to the horror of Al Jolson pushing to cast himself as a blackface Porgy. (Except for several minor white roles. The whites are the only characters that speak instead of sing—both a stroke of genius and the only racial jab in the production.)
     While a Lyric audience usually has the racial diversity of a Blackhawks game, "Porgy" is a chance to change that, and it was gratifying to see busloads of CPS high school students brought in for Friday's dress rehearsal. At intermission, I talked to a group from Whitney Young, and asked what they thought of the show.
     "Being young, we know some of the stuff they're talking about," said Gillian Asque, 17, a junior, adding that it's "not your usual boring opera."
     Seeing the opera moots all debate. The music transcends, the songs haunt and thrill. The production is lavish — the lighting throws a warm summer South Carolina glow, the shimmery burnt orange slip of a dress that Bess first appears in deserves credit in the program. Ultimately, while the negative elements focused on by those ready to dismiss it are certainly there, so are their opposites. Yes, we have Porgy and Bess, but there are also Clara and Jake — Clara singing to her baby, Jake fishing every day to pay for the baby's college.
     Yes, we have two of the creepiest villains you'll ever see on stage — the sweaty, big-bellied, murderous Crown, and the wiry, lavender-suited, yellow-vested, Sportin' Life, brandishing packets of cocaine like a magician producing a dove.
    But they face their opposites. "Friends with you, low life?" sneers the shopkeeper, driving off Sportin' Life with a meat cleaver. "Hell no."
     There is gambling, but also baptism, at a joyous church picnic where a single verse sums up the appeal of the moral path more succinctly than I've ever heard it summed up before: "I ain't got no shame doing what I like to do."
     When the hurricane hits in the third act, and the grand stage at the Lyric is filled with humanity, on its knees before the wrath of nature, lightning casting stark shadows of their outstretched arms, appealing to the mercy of heaven, they are not black people, not poor people, but just people, and "Porgy and Bess," like all art, transcends its characters and its setting, its era and ours, and is above all else a story, about men and women, ennobled by love, undone by death, bowed yet brave. To say Porgy reflects poorly on blacks is like saying Medea reflects poorly on Greeks because, you know, she kills her kids.
     I left there overwhelmed by a love story between a simple, sweet-hearted man and a vivacious, tortured woman, set against a backdrop of strong community, suffering, hard work, joyous faith and unbreakable hope. And contrary to every critic who has written about "Porgy and Bess" over the last 70 years, I think he gets to New York and he finds her.

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 17, 2008

Photos courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography.     



  1. "..the racial diversity of a Blackhawks game..." Crackin' me up over here.

  2. This column was my introduction to the wondrous world of opera. Looking forward to seeing "Porgy and Bess".

  3. You are right Neil. It was a good column then and still is. I too attended the Dress, and think this cast is better than in 2008. For those readers who lose track of the fact that this is a six year old column, it might be useful to note that opening night is Monday, not Tuesday. Important for those of us who like to record the broadcasts.

    If Gershwin had lived, and put his mind to it,he might have written a better opera -- it's a bit long and eposodic to be entirely satisfactory -- but it has been well received in performances all over the world (by white casts in blackface in Europe during the 1940's), which is more than can be said about most modern operas -- of those commissioned by Lyric, only William Bolcom's "View from the Bridge" is still around. And it is said to have been admired by Benjamin Britten, the most successful opera composer of the late 20th Century.

    That most of the controversy has subsided is some kind of a sign of progress. Beyond the fact that it was written by two New York Jews and a southern white guy, you might have added that the excelent production being used by Lyric Opera was created by Italian American Francesca Zambello.

  4. I remember seeing the film version of "Porgy and Bess", with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr and Pearl Bailey among other great actors. I was very young, but very impressed with the movie and its story line. The latest opera was on public television a couple of weeks ago and I enjoyed it even more all these years later. Good column.

  5. Some of the sharpest writing about race in Chicago lit is by James Farrell, Irish guy. And no one knows white people better than black writers (the marginal always have to understand the dominant, but not the other way around.) If we limit who can write about something-they're-not, the next step is to limit who can read about something-they're-not, and we have perfect segregation in the arts too. A very bad idea.

  6. I have only read a small percentage of Mr. Steinberg’s writings and I disagree with him about 75 % of the time. But this is a great column and the best I have read from him.

    There is the truth and those that strive for the truth. If they are honest and sincere, then they will be forgiven for any shortcomings.

    And then there are those that write and speak dishonestly – whether they are doing it for a self-serving reason or for what they believe to be a higher purpose. But such dishonesty is simply corrosive of the truth – and in the long run—corrosive of human relationships.

    That is why ‘political correctness’ is such an invidious evil.


Please feel free to comment on my Facebook page.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.