Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Article excerpt

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera. By Ellen Noonan. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. [xvi], 423. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-3716-0.)

This book is an exhaustive analysis of Porgy and Bess's role in American culture and race relations from its inception as the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward in 1925 through its incarnation as a play in 1927, its appearance as a folk opera in 1935 with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward, its use by the U.S. State Department in the 1950s to promote American culture during the Cold War, and finally its reappearance as a full-blown American opera during the 1970s. Ellen Noonan's thesis maintains that Porgy and Bess reveals "the collision between white fantasy and black pragmatism" as the nation underwent major alterations in its "attitude toward racial equality" (p. 1). While the author analyzes the cultural product at each stage of its life, she focuses heavily on the commentary in the mainstream press and in black newspapers. Debates focused on whether Porgy and Bess authentically portrayed African Americans and their evolution toward racial equality. Whereas the white public considered the residents of Catfish Row accurate and authentic, blacks found the prostitutes, beggars, drug addicts, and religious acolytes demeaning stereotypes that misrepresented black aspirations and retarded the march to full equality. Still, African American critics recognized that the play offered coveted roles to black actors and actresses, while the folk opera allowed black opera performers the rare chance to ply their trade and demonstrate their artistic and human worth.

To underscore her major point, Noonan includes three interludes and an epilogue that demonstrate how blacks and whites in Charleston, South Carolina, Heyward's home and the story's setting, actually interacted and how African Americans really lived. Instead of desiring to remain in the white fantasy paradise of a premodern world, however sympathetically portrayed, blacks faced continual violence and intimidation by white supremacists, fought segregation, attempted to gain the vote, and emphasized that they wanted freedom. …

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