Porgy and Bess Dramaturgy
By Zoe Wolfe12th Grade, Hunter College High School The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has never been an easy show to produce, from its beginnings as a straight play in the 1920s, to its life as an opera in the ‘30s and ‘70s, to its current incarnation as a Broadway musical. Set on Catfish Row, a black tenement in South Carolina during the 1920’s, the show has always walked the fine line between depicting a rich culture and blatant racism. This production, however, heavily leans towards the former. The goal was to take the Gershwin’s classic, yet controversial opera and modify it for a modern audience. Not only did that include whittling four hours down to two and a half, but changing the book to make the show more relatable. Pieces of the original score remain, but the script has been re-imagined by Pulitzer prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and the director, Diane Paulus. Parks admits that she took certain liberties with respect to the plot and characters for the modern production, likening her revisions to the way jazz musicians riff on sheet music. While the power of the opera comes largely from the score, which is a fusion of many different musical genres, the current production uses dialogue, instead of recitative (a form of singing typical speech), to create an impact. The new production also riffs upon the vibrant 1920’s African American culture that is central to the show, making it accessible for modern audiences and allowing the story to shine. The time and place, suggested with a stage made of weathered wood and simple costumes, is clear but not overpowering or distracting. Setting also comes from the distinct “Gullah” dialect, which was created naturally by the actors, with the help of a dialect coach, instead of the phonetics written into the script. While the Broadway production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is not the same four-hour opera, purists shouldn’t shun the adaptation. The changes, all made with the blessing of the Gershwin estate, result in a show that gets to the heart of the passionate, rich musical George and Ira wanted to create.