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The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess

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

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess
    Book Description:

    Created by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward and sung by generations of black performers,Porgy and Besshas 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 Besswas 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 Bessuncovers the complexities behind one of our nation's most long-lived cultural touchstones.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0025-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The operaPorgy 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 ofPorgy and Bessis a case study in the ways that white Americans in the twentieth century craved stories...

  5. 1 A ROMANCE OF NEGRO LIFE: Porgy, 1925
    (pp. 13-52)

    1925 was the year of the “New Negro.” There was the anthology of African American fiction, poetry, and essays by that name; edited by Alain Locke and published in December of that year, the work became a manifesto for a generation of black artists determined to be passionate, productive, race-conscious, and visible. African Americans were leaving the South in unprecedented numbers, extricating themselves from the bonds of segregation’s economic, political, and social disenfranchisement to find new opportunities in northern cities. Known as the Great Migration, it brought more than a million African Americans out of the region and marked a...

  6. INTERLUDE. Charleston, 1680–1900
    (pp. 53-72)

    Catfish Row, Heyward’s fictional name for a house located at 89-91 Church Street in the oldest section of the city, had its physical origins in Charleston’s earliest decades and reflected the city’s history of slavery and emancipation. Located three blocks from the southern tip of the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the blocks that became Church Street were part of the settlement established by the Carolina Proprietors in 1680, which remained a jumble of residential and commercial streets through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.¹ Slave labor in a small and crowded city meant that black and white residents...

    (pp. 73-124)

    After a debut novel that garnered acclaim from New York to Hollywood, with no small measure of attention paid to his life story in the process, DuBose Heyward had a right to feel like a recognized member of the American cultural scene. And he was—except, on occasion, for one distinguishing detail. “I spend much of my time living down the rumour that I am a negro,” Heyward told a reporter in 1929. Again putting autobiography in the service of promoting his literary output (this time the dramatic adaptation ofPorgy), he recounted to a different reporter the cases of...

  8. INTERLUDE. Charleston, 1920–1940
    (pp. 125-142)

    In 1927, the year thatPorgythe play took audiences in New York and around the country by storm, whites outnumbered blacks in the population of South Carolina for the first time in more than a century. Some whites who noticed this demographic shift were frankly relieved. A handbook published by the state’s Department of Agriculture declared that the large black migration portended “new freedom for South Carolina . . . the removal of the always vague but always present shadow. South Carolina has become at last a white majority state.”¹ At the same time, Charleston’s elite white families, most...

    (pp. 143-184)

    In 1934 George Gershwin visited DuBose Heyward in South Carolina and spent five weeks with him at Heyward’s summer home on Folly Island, off the coast of Charleston. The purpose of the trip was to give Gershwin a chance to listen to the authentic Low Country African American folk music on which he planned to draw as he composed his first opera, based on Heyward’s novel and play. When the opera debuted in October 1935 (and for many years after), this trip served as a powerful credential, one that authorized Gershwin as expert in the kind of black musical sound...

    (pp. 185-234)

    “Shortly before Christmas of 1954,” the article began, “a Balkans-bound train ground to a stop in the bleak, wind-swept station at Trieste.” Written by journalist Ollie Stewart, who was traveling through Europe with the cast of the American production ofPorgy and Bess, the dispatch continued with the story of how cast members leaned out of the train’s windows and saw “armed station guards—tense, unbending and none of them smiling.” Trying to cheer up the “grim faced” guards, the cast began singing Christmas carols—first “Silent Night,” and then “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” By the time they got...

  11. INTERLUDE. Charleston, 1940–1969
    (pp. 235-258)

    By 1960 the story of Porgy, Charleston’s goat-cart beggar, had become internationally famous. The 1952–56 tour spread the tale around the country and the world, and in 1959 Metro Goldwyn Mayer released a highly publicized film version ofPorgy and Bess. Civic leaders in Charleston, who had long cultivated the association between the city and the various versions of the Porgy story, saw an opportunity to encourage both civic pride and tourist dollars with a local production ofPorgy, the play coauthored by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. Robert N. S. Whitelaw, head of the Carolina Art Association, began planning...

  12. 5 FORGET ANY VERSION YOU MAY HAVE SEEN BEFORE: Porgy and Bess, 1959–2012
    (pp. 259-304)

    From its 1925 debut, the Porgy story exhibited a remarkable capacity for reinvention, as its producers and audiences adapted their interpretations of the show to suit the gradual shifts taking place in American attitudes about race. But by the late 1950s, there was every reason to believe that the show’s long run in the cultural mainstream would be coming to an end. Changes in how Americans viewed racial difference and its implications had gone from a simmer to a boil, andPorgy and Bessseemed unlikely to survive the change in temperature. African American criticism of the show grew ever...

  13. EPILOGUE. Charleston, 1970–2005
    (pp. 305-312)

    In 1970 South Carolina celebrated its three-hundredth birthday, and in Charleston,Porgy and Bessplayed a starring role in the festivities. The first production of the opera ever in its city of origin was produced by the Charleston Symphony Association and funded largely by the South Carolina Tricentennial Commission.Porgy and Bessveteran Ella Gerber was brought in to direct a cast of local amateurs. An enthusiastic black-tie crowd of 2,700 (including prominent elected officials andPorgy and Bessvips such as Jennifer Heyward and Eva Jessye) packed the city’s Municipal Auditorium on opening night and applauded through several curtain...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 313-398)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 399-412)
  16. Index
    (pp. 413-423)