Racism in Opera: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess

On the 10th of October 1935, George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess opened in the Alvin Theatre on Broadway, New York. A few years earlier, Singer Al Jolson attempted to musicalise the story starring as a comic blackface Porgy, his minstrel shows, an unacceptable racist concept nowadays. The Broadway opening was unprecedented in U.S. history due to the fact that it featured an all-African American cast of classically trained opera singers. The work amalgamated European orchestral techniques mixed with American jazz and folk, African-American beats and Russian-Jewish resonances.

The story, in brief, was that of the black residents of Catfish Row, a fishing village in Charleston, South Carolina set in the early 1920s. Bess, a woman of questionable reputation and a history of addiction tries to break free from her violent lover Crown who is on the run from the police, wanted for murder. Shunned by the locals, Bess is an outcast whose only salvation comes from the handicapped Porgy, who falls madly in love with her, determined to turn her life around. Their love story is overshadowed by the disapproval of their neighbours, the threatening return of Crown and the presence of Bess’ old drug dealer Sportin’ Life. A memorable episode in the opera shows Bess singing Gershwin’s well-known Summertime as a lullaby to an orphaned baby, showing her in a positive maternal stance. 

As expected, there was a lot of racial controversy surrounding this new opera. Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times (21 January 2012) that, “When arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century first opened on Broadway in 1935, its libretto was littered with a word now shunned as an anti-black slur. The African-American residents of Catfish Row (…) used it liberally, and so of course did the white characters during their occasional menacing visits.” The local African-American community, including some of the cast, saw the play as detrimental to the race and a means of perpetuating negative stereotypes. There were concerns about Gershwin’s motives for picking a black community as his subject and several critics pointed out that it was impossible for someone outside the folklore to fully understand it. Porgy and Bess was further labelled as racist and outmoded during the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. A more recent inside view was offered by Bess protagonist Audra McDonald in The Los Angeles Times (5 October 2011):

“Lots of people, lots of African Americans and performers who play these roles have trouble with the stereotypical way in which these characters have been drawn. They’re called archetypes, but a lot of people call them stereotypes as well. (…) George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were writing this piece from a place of love and from their understanding of African American culture. But they were still outsiders in that culture, and therefore they can’t possibly have perfectly drawn fine lines for their characters, because it’s an outside culture, especially at a time when there was no race mixing to speak of. And also it was a time when it was the law in many parts of the land that, yes, black people don’t come to the theater the same day as white people (…) The original Porgy refused to play the theater in Washington, D.C., until they [admitted a mixed-race audience], and (…) finally they desegregated that theater for the first time.”

Instead of focusing on the colour of the protagonists’ skin, McDonald thinks this opera is really just a study of the characters themselves: following Porgy’s progress from insecure cripple to love-struck hero, Bess’s journey from addiction to absolution and worthiness in Porgy’s eyes. The male protagonist draws physical strength from the female, while the latter, strength of will and character from the male. So, although racial issues linger on in the background, transformed by the passing decades, the main contemporary focus of the opera should be the exploration of the characters through the expression of music. Revived consistently since its first opening, Porgy and Bess was identified by social critic Harold Cruse as “the most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World”.