The first strains of “Summertime” sent chills through my skin. Lullabying the baby in her arms, Nikki Rene Daniels’ Clara lilted the lyric, “and you’re mama’s good lookin’,” with a boastful half grin. Oh yeah, she’s the good lookin’ mama. I had never gotten the joke before. Instantly, the familiar pop song was transformed into the expressions of a new mother with fresh and urgent feelings to convey. That kind of move characterizes this production. It’s full of strong acting choices that pull you into the play’s present and invest Gershwin’s sublime score with specific, immediate drama.
For all of its mastery, “Porgy and Bess” needs this. There will always be something uncomfortable about watching white artists’ impressions of black life and folk art from 1930’s America. There are also some troubling messages about women in the play. After all, the lessons of Jake’s counter-lullaby, “A Woman is a Sometimes Thing,” are cruelly enacted by Bess, our heroine, who vows her fidelity to Porgy, inspires him to commit a crime that will weigh on his conscience and then slips away once he seems to be in trouble.
Both of these concerns fade however once you’re relating to the play’s characters on a human, rather than an emblematic level, and that is indeed this production’s greatest strength. As Bess, Audra McDonald offers an impressive psychological portrait of a trauma victim desperately trying to find her footing in a challenging moral landscape. I believed in her Bess and I felt for her and the same went for the other residents of Catfish Row, a collective of individuals rather than a generic chorus.
It must be said that, as written, Bess’s antagonists have some surprising moral shadings. Crown, played charismatically by hulking bass, Philip Boykin, is in many ways a stock villain, yet toward the end of the play, he’s actually given a Calvinist moral argument to explain his behavior. For him, the facts that he’s on the top of the Catfish Row heap and that he’s survived his many risks in life, prove that he’s blessed. He calls God his “big friend” and believes that he’s secured a divine endorsement to take what he wants. In the world of the play, it’s pretty clear that Crown is wrong, but it’s also poignant that his Catfish Row compatriots, who openly root against him, also lament his downfall.
Even Sportin’ Life, the sleazy, self-interested dope dealer gets one of the play’s best songs in defense of his choices. “It Aint Necessarily So,” with its catalogue of the Bible’s tallest tales makes it seem less than foolish to be wary of the Good Book’s received wisdom. If it’s doubt worthy that Jonah could survive in a whale’s belly or that Methuselah could live 900 years, it might also be doubt worthy that this Devil guy is a villain. Best to test it and see, and in fact, the jury’s out on whether or not this villain is himself better off for his moral flexibility.
It’s all in the song and the story, although David Alan Grier plays it mostly for laughs. The comedian is wonderful in the role, sporting a relentless pimp limp, a wriggling neck and snaky sibilance in his speech. While I expected Grier to make me laugh, I was blown away at how absolutely he held his own vocally on a stage full of virtuosic singers.
As far as any fears about watering down the opera for the musical theater format, I certainly had no complaints. There was no shortage of power and vibrato in the singing, but I could understand every word, and the mixture of recitative and added dialogue felt well blended and unobtrusive. I equally appreciated Ronald K. Brown’s choreography, which heightened the motions of shooting craps, fishing, praying and strutting for dominance without ever coming across as inorganic.
I’m sure that some who are more familiar with the opera than I will take issue with some of adaptations. I heard some audience members remark that they missed Porgy’s goat cart, replaced here with a simple cane. I for one, found the image of Norm Lewis’s Porgy, his eyes fixed in a steely gaze as he prepared to limp down the road with a stick and brace, as moving as any in the play. Taken as its own work, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” is a finely wrought and deeply moving musical tragedy. See it here before New York gets it.
Directed by Diane Paulus and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” plays the A.R.T.’s Loeb Theater through October 2. It is set to transfer to Broadway in December.
Hi Caroline,I was lieisntng to the radio this morning to Tom Joyners syndicated Morning Show.He features a black history segment every day. Today he spoke on Anne Brown. I became intrigues with learning more about her so I searched the web, all the while wondering, what did this woman look like, only to find that she was absolutely beautiful. I wish I had been under her influences as well. When I read your words, the way you decribe your feelings for her, my eyes became tearful. How proud you must have felt to know her. She reminds me quite a bit of my Grandmother. Who was my mentor and a wonderful woman as well.I am sure that it saddened you greatly at her passing. But what a gift from God it was to actually know her. May God continue to bless you.Crystal Avent