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Bess, a woman with a disreputable history, tries to break free from her brutish lover Crown after he becomes wanted for murder. The only person willing to overlook her past and offer her shelter is the crippled Porgy. Their relationship is threatened by the disapproval of the townspeople, the presence of her old drug supplier Sportin' Life, and the threatened return of Crown.
WRITING PORGY & BESS
George Gershwin read the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward in 1926 and immediately saw musical possibilities. He wrote to Heyward about the idea of adapting the novel as a folk opera. Heyward was interested but scheduling prevented work beginning on the opera.
In 1927, Heyward and his wife Dorothy adapted as a play, incorporating spirituals. It was produced by the Theatre Guild and ran for 367 performances (for more information, see the IBDB entry for this play). The play generated interested in musicalizing the work, including interest from Al Jolson.
Heyward, however, focused on Gershwin's idea. And, in the fall of 1933, the two men signed a contract with the Theatre Guild to work on the project. The following summer, they went to Folly Beach, South Carolina to get a feel for the locale and the music. They worked most of the summer there with Gershwin drawing much inspiration from the James Island Gullah community, which maintained some African musical traditions. Ira Gershwin provided additional lyrics (notably for "It Ain't Necessarily So". However, Heyward wrote the libretto and the bulk of the lyrics (including "Summer Time").
CHARGES OF RACISM
From the beginning of its life, Porgy & Bess has drawn criticism from Black actors and Blacks in general. Even members of the original cast had concerns about their characters. Several productions in the 1930s were cancelled due to similar concerns.
Many have felt that the characters in the work play into racial stereotypes. The characters live in poverty, take drugs and solve their problems with violence rather than rational thought. The dialect has also been considered racist, showing Blacks as uneducated and barely able to speak English.
In the 1960s, the criticism of the work escalated during a time in American history when racism became an even greater hot-button issue.
Over time the work has gained respect both artistically and racially, having launched the careers of several opera stars.See more
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