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George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" has assumed over the years the stature of a classic work of American music. Ellen Noonan offers a detailed cultural history of "Porgy and Bess" in her new book, "The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess: Race Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera."(2012) The title reference to "The Strange Career" is telling as it echoes C.Vann Woodward's classic study, "The Strange Career of Jim Crow".The Strange Career of Jim Crow Noonan's book largely traces differing and changing views of the authenticity of the portrayal of African American life in Porgy and Bess. Noonan is a historian, educator, and media producer at the American Social History Project at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Noonan observes that Gershwin's opera "tells the story of a crippled beggar, his drug-addicted girlfriend, her violent ex-boyfriend, and their long-suffering hard-praying neighbors." The story is set in a tenement building in Charleston, South Carolina known as Catfish Row, probably in the early part of the 20th Century. The conflict about the opera over the years has been about the stereotyped portrayal of African Americans. Noonan describes the conflict in great detail and the ways in which the story has been read to avoid the stereotyping.
Noonan begins her study with the novel on which the opera was based, "Porgy" (1925) by DuBose Heyward, a white member of Charleston's aristocracy whose family had fallen upon hard times. Heyward claimed that his novel was based upon his own close familiarity with the African American lives it describes. While granting that the book shows considerable sensitivity towards its characters, Noonan points out the limited character of the book and of the type of lives it portrays. Heyward was overtly segregationist in his sympathies. Noonan points out that the novel is a critique of the Great Migration under which African Americans in Charleston and elsewhere in the South were moving North in the hope of finding a better life.
In 1927, Heyward and his wife Dorothy transformed their novel into a successful play, also titled "Porgy" which had a long and successful run on Broadway and elsewhere. The play was notable for using an all African American cast, a rarity in that era for serious drama. White critics tended to praise the play for its allgedly "authentic" portrayal of southern African American life and to praise the actors for their claimed spontaneity and emotiveness in the production. In fact, the actors were northerners and highly educated. Many African American critics were tepid at best about the story, but they praised the acting in the play and the opportunity it offered to talented African American performers.
Gershwin loved the book and the play and collaborated with DuBose Heyward who wrote the libretto and, together with Ira Gershwin, the song lyrics for what became known as "Porgy and Bess". The opera premiered with an African American cast in 1935. Noonan painstakingly describes the varied reactions both to Heyward's libretto and to Gershwin's music. The critique that the work was racially stereotyped became more forceful. Criticism was directed as well, to a somewhat lesser degree, to the claim that Gershwin's score was authentically African American in inspiration. Noonan also discusses some of the musical history of the work, as it was soon cut from its initial length of three hours to a work of about two hours. The cuts made, in the eyes of some critics, "Porgy and Bess" more of a Broadway musical that the folk-opera it was claimed to be.
In subsequent chapters, Noonan examines various productions of Porgy and Bess and the manner in which the work was presented to mute criticism of its claimed stereotyping. She offers a lengthy discussion of Porgy and Bess' worldwide tour from 1952 -- 1956 sponsored by the State Department. In this tour, emphasis fell on the opportunities for performance that the United States offered the gifted African American cast while the opera's story was consigned to a historical role.
In her final chapter, Noonan describes Porgy and Bess' history between 1959 and 2012. At times, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the opera seemed destined for obscurity. It survived, however, and became more a fixture of American culture than it had been earlier. Noonan describes the criticism of the libretto in considering the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess and the 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera Company. The Houston revival restored the full three hour text of Gershwin's original score, presenting it unabashedly as an opera rather than a musical. By taking the music back in time, the story line could be presented either as a historical period piece or as a theme with a universal rather than a particularist meaning. Many earlier critics had tried to see the work in one or the other of these ways. In 1995, Porgy and Bess was presented for the first time under the direction of an African American, the choreographer Hope Clarke.
Noonan separates her chapters discussing the history of Porgy and Bess with interludes setting forth the history of Charleston between colonial days and the present. Thus she shows the harsh backdrop of segregation against which the story took place, and which Heyward softened, sentimentalized, or ignored. Noonan describes well the rise of civil rights activism in Charleston beginning in the 1920s and 1930s together with the long history of frustrated attempts to present Porgy and Bess to the local Charleston audience.
While not a musical analysis of Porgy and Bess, Noonan's book is a thoughtful cultural history of the reception of Gershwin's opera. It will interest readers who are fascinated with what has become a beloved distinctively American work.