Porgy and Bess and Disability

Last night we saw the Seventy-fifth Anniversary tour of Porgy and Bess at the Flynn Center. The show was produced by Michael Capasso, and performed by a national touring company. True to its earliest productions, this classic Gershwin opera was presented by a predominately African American cast, with the lone major white character being the stereotypical Southern racist police official. The orchestra was vibrant, the acting believable (we saw “Attila” at the Met a couple of weeks ago, and the acting wasn’t), and the music pure Gershwin. The actor playing Porgy was magnificent, as were the actors playing several other major parts.

The play portrays the challenges and rewards of living in a vibrant black community in coastal south Carolina in the late Teens and early Twenties. Sex, violence, death, drugs, and gambling are portrayed openly. The only real money in the community belongs to the local thug and the village pimp, who also sells bootleg liquor and drugs. Life is hard, and most people pull together to form a tightly knit community. At the core of the story we find Porgy, a disabled man who begs for his living, and Bess, a prostitute and addict with whom Porgy falls in love. For Porgy, as for many persons with disabilities, life is lonely, and Porgy tells the community about his loneliness  (although long an adult, he has never had a lover)  in his first major aria.

The Gershwins were soundly criticized for portraying real life in the Afro-American community. They were also celebrated for showing the world that the experience of poor Black Americans is not that different form poor White Americans. In the world of this opera there are people seeking to impose their particular brand of power, and others who resist. There is religious faith to challenge the horror, and music to bring joy. There is birth, and much death.

The casting of this show reflected  the population being reproduced on stage with one notable exception. The actor playing Porgy, magnificent as he was in the role, was not obviously disabled. Oddly I did not really think about this until my wife pointed it out as we drove home post performance. “Surely,” she mused, ” they could have found a disabled singer to play Porgy.” Surely they could have, but they didn’t. Watching this classic piece of theater reminded us that while much has changed over the past seventy five years, much remains the same.

After writing this, we were told that the reviewer for the Burlington Free Press had essentially the same comments as per above. Well, somethings do change! Thanks and accolades to the Free Press!

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