The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera

Synopsis

Created by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward and sung by generations of black performers, Porgy and Bess has been both embraced and reviled since its debut in 1935. In this comprehensive account, Ellen Noonan examines the opera's long history of invention and reinvention as a barometer of twentieth-century American expectations about race, culture, and the struggle for equality. In its surprising endurance lies a myriad of local, national, and international stories.
For black performers and commentators, Porgy and Bess was a nexus for debates about cultural representation and racial uplift. White producers, critics, and even audiences spun revealing racial narratives around the show, initially in an attempt to demonstrate its authenticity and later to keep it from becoming discredited or irrelevant. Expertly weaving together the wide-ranging debates over the original novel, Porgy, and its adaptations on stage and film with a history of its intimate ties to Charleston, The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess uncovers the complexities behind one of our nation's most long-lived cultural touchstones.

Excerpt

The opera Porgy and Bess, which tells the story of a crippled beggar, his drug-addicted girlfriend, her violent ex-boyfriend, and their long-suffering, hard-praying neighbors, has been a beloved and enduring American cultural production since its 1935 debut. Its authors—DuBose Heyward, George Gershwin, and Ira Gershwin—were white, and all of its major characters are African American, a simple fact that has yielded a fascinatingly complex series of conversations about American culture and black racial identity. The making and remaking of Porgy and Bess is a case study in the ways that white Americans in the twentieth century craved stories about African Americans featuring earthy authenticity and frictionless progress toward racial equality, while African Americans, particularly African American artists, had to maneuver within the cultural marketplace created by such white desires. James Baldwin identified this dynamic when he wrote of the 1959 film version of the opera: “What has always been missing from George Gershwin’s opera is what the situation of Porgy and Bess says about the white world. It is because of this omission that Americans are so proud of the opera. It assuages their guilt about Negroes and it attacks none of their fantasies.”

The history of Porgy and Bess, then, is a history of the collision between white fantasy and black pragmatism during a period when the United States was undergoing profound changes in its political, social, and cultural attitudes toward racial equality. The commentary and debate about the opera that took place in the pages of mainstream newspapers and magazines and in the parallel world of the black press centered on always-shifting and oftenconflicting ideas about what constituted the most authentic, true-to-life way to represent African Americans and what signaled their progress toward racial equality. The theme of authenticity reverberates through nearly every review of Porgy and Bess (and in reviews of its forerunners, the novel and play versions of Porgy) as writers across generations staked a claim to de-

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