Despite its controversial portrayal of African-American life in the 1920s, “Porgy and Bess” has kept its footing as one of America’s enduring theatrical productions. But as old stereotypes give way to new realities, even some classics are dusted off and given fresh paint.
That was the idea in 2010 when the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University recruited Suzan-Lori Parks, an African-American author, to rewrite the stage classic made famous by the music of George and Ira Gershwin. In interviews published before its Broadway opening, Parks said her goal was to make “Porgy and Bess” more appealing to contemporary theatergoers.
The result of that collaborative effort – “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” – went on to win a 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The show has been on a national tour since November and arrives in Charlotte July Tuesday for eight performances over six days at the Belk Theater.
“Porgy and Bess” is set amid the Gullah islands of Charleston in the fictitious community of Catfish Row, where Porgy, a disabled beggar, pursues the affections of Bess, a woman of loose morals.
Originally performed as a four-hour opera, “Porgy and Bess” is based on a novel written by the husband-wife team of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and the stage production has been reworked several times since it was first performed in 1935. (The current version lasts about 2 1/2 hours.)
From the opening curtain nearly 90 years ago, critics have accused “Porgy and Bess” of perpetuating racist stereotypes – shiftless drug dealers, loose women and lazy men content in their poverty.
David Hughey, who plays Jake – a devoted husband, father and business owner who is the hope and pride of Catfish Row – said the latest production works because much of the creative authority was given to people with a sensitivity to the onstage portrayal of African-Americans.
“I think it’s important for people to recognize that this production is new,” he said. “This is not like the opera. The characters were fleshed out. I think people had problems with the opera because the characters were more archetypes. I think African-Americans didn’t see themselves portrayed in these archetypical ways.”
If the latest production succeeds in addressing some of those issues of racial sensitivity – and by all indications it does, based on reviews – then much of the credit goes to Parks, Hughey said.
Long before her work with “Porgy and Bess,” Parks was known as a gritty, avant-garde author who had written screenplays for Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey. In 2002, her novel, “Topdog/Underdog,” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. When recruited for the “Porgy and Bess” rewrite, she worked to give the residents of Catfish Row more “dimension,” Hughey said.
“The characters have plots,” he said. “They have feelings and they struggle with things. It’s fleshed out a lot more. Her work brings dignity to the text and the things that people are saying.”
Another thing that sets the current production apart, Hughey said, is the amount of dancing. In earlier productions, he said, professional dancers were sometimes hired to do what opera singers could not. But in the current version, he said, the main cast performs both functions.
Hughey, a native of Pittsburgh, said he grew up with dreams of being a Broadway performer, but somewhere along the way, he said, his career took a turn more toward opera and concert performances. He spent a year living in Berlin and performing in opera houses throughout Germany before fate offered him a chance to be an understudy in the Broadway production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
“I found that as an opera singer, I could find work easier there,” he said. “So I moved. I would say they appreciate classical music much more there than they do in the States, and there’s a lot more of it. … And also, race was not so much of an issue as it was here in the States.”
On Broadway, Hughey was understudy for the role of Jake as well as for Sporting Life. He described the latter as “an oily sort of dark character” and a shady drug dealer.
When asked which role he found most satisfying – the straight-laced Jake or the devilish Sporting Life – Hughey was diplomatic.
“I will say that on Broadway, when I was doing Sporting Life, it was more than fun; it was challenging and invigorating,” he said. “You really do have to find parts of yourself that you don’t deal with on a daily basis. We all have these characters in us, so you have to reach down and find those things and pull them out. I did have a wonderful time getting into the role of Sporting Life on Broadway. But in this production, I’m happy doing Jake.”