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So what, we might ask, did Gershwin know about the characters he depicted? He spent a good deal of time with DuBose Heyward, the writer of “Porgy” (and co-librettist for portions of the work), who was of Gullah heritage. The composer even moved to Folly Island, S.C., in order to spend time with the people on whom the opera is based. Heyward said that Gershwin’s visit was “more like a homecoming than an exploration,” and the residents seemed to agree. Gershwin even joined in on a “shouting” ritual at a community meeting. “I’m over 70 years old, and I ain’t never seen no po’ little white man take off like you,” one elderly resident said. “You could be my own son.” Gershwin’s depiction of this culture was a labor of love, and a tribute.
What about the claims of racism? As Howard Pollack points out in his biography, “George Gershwin: His Life and Work” (University of California Press, 2007), the opera was as far from minstrelsy as a work can be. While coaching the cast in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” the composer explained that the tune was not happy, but actually “a bitter song….” He instructed, “You’re making fun of people who make money and to whom power and position” are important.
For the latest production, a new, happy ending to which Sondheim had objected, has now been dropped. But there are a lot of other alterations, apparently including revisions of the orchestrations, harmonies and keys. Some of the theatrical changes are questionable: Porgy no longer gets around with a goat cart; he now uses a cane, despite the fact that the original inspiration for Heyward’s vision of “Porgy” was a real character in Charleston, S.C., known as “Goat Sammy,” whose tragic life made him a “crushed, serio-comic figure.” Which is more authentic — the contemporary cane or the original goat?
The 1926 presentation of Heyward’s play by New York’s Theatre Guild, James Weldon Johnson wrote, “removed all doubts as to [the Negro’s] ability to do acting that requires thoughtful interpretation and intelligent skill.” Similarly, the opportunity presented to the black singers of the 1935 opera was historic. It was a moment to be applauded. The brilliance of Gershwin’s vision made it all possible and continues to open up possibilities for the stars of today.
Stuart Isacoff’s latest book is “A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians — From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between” (Knopf, 2011).