Synopsis

Act 1. Catfish Row, a tenement near Charleston, SouthCarolina, in the 1920s. The inhabitants of Catfish Row are relaxing after a day’s work. Clara sings the lullaby Summertime to her baby to quiet him. The drug-dealer Sportin’ Life, Clara’s husband Jake, and some of the other men are shooting craps under the disapproving eye of Serena. Clara and Jake’s baby is still restless, so Jake sings the lullaby A Woman Is A Sometimes Thing to quiet his baby son. Then Porgy arrives and is about to join the game when Crown and his partner Bess appear. The bully Crown joins the dice game. Drunk and high on drugs, he loses, starts a fight and kills Robbins with a cotton hook. Before the police arrive, Crown runs off to hide, telling Bess that he’ll be back for her. The community shuns Bess as they wait for the police. Sportin’ Life offers to take her to New York with him, but she refuses. Only Porgy is sympathetic. He offers her shelter and his protection, which she accepts.

In her room the following evening, Robbins’s widow Serena leads the mourners at her husband’s funeral. A collection is being taken to meet the cost of the burial. Porgy and Bess enter, and Bess offers Serena a contribution which at first she refuses thinking it must be Crown’s money. She finally accepts it when it is explained that it is Porgy’s.The police officers arrive and accuse Peter the Honeyman of the murder. Fearing what might happen, he tells them that Crown was responsible, but the police arrest Peter anyway as a material witness. Serena convinces the undertaker to bury Robbins for less than his usual fee. Bess leads everyone in an exultant spiritual.

A month later, Jake and the other fishermen are mending their nets. Sportin’ Life enters, but before he has the chance to peddle any of his “happy dust,” Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, chases him away. “Lawyer” Frazier sells Bess a divorce, even though she and Crown were never married. Everyone is preparing to leave for a church picnic on Kittiwah Island. Sportin’ Life asks Bess again to come to New York with him and tries again to give her drugs. She refuses. Porgy threatens him and chases him off. Porgy and Bess reflect on their newfound happiness in the duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now. Porgy insists that Bess should go to the picnic without him. At first, she refuses, not wanting to leave him alone, but eventually, she yields to his persuasion and joins the others as they set off.

On Kittiwah Island, the evening of the same day, Sportin’ Life describes his own cynical view of religion to some of the revelers in the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, until Serena chastises them for being taken in by his stories. The steamboat whistle announces that it is time to leave, and everyone starts to pack up their belongings. Bess hurries along until Crown, who has been hiding on the island since the Robbins’ murder, calls out to her. He wants Bess to come with him, but she explains that she now has a new life with Porgy. Crown forces her to stay with him.

ACT 2. In Catfish Row, at dawn a week later, fishermen leave for a day’s work at sea despite a storm warning. Bess is heard talking deliriously from Porgy’s room. She has been feverish and ill since returning from Kittiwah Island. Peter, released from jail that morning, advises Porgy to take her to the hospital, but Serena would rather pray for her recovery. Her prayers are answered: Bess emerges into the courtyard, free of the fever. She explains to Porgy that she wants to stay with him but that when Crown returns, she’ll be forced to go back to him. Porgy tells her that she doesn’t have to go with Crown, and he and Bess reaffirm their love for each other. The wind begins to rise, and the hurricane bell sounds.

At dawn the following day, everyone has taken shelter in Serena’s room. They pray for deliverance from the storm. Suddenly, Crown enters, seeking shelter and looking for Bess. She refuses to go with him, insisting that she belongs only to Porgy. He mocks Porgy as being half a man, and ridicules the townspeople, answering their prayers for deliverance with the vulgar song A Redheaded Woman. At the storm’s height, Clara sees Jake’s boat has overturned and rushes out to save her husband. Bess calls for one of the men to go after her. Crown is the only one to respond.

The next evening, the storm has passed. The women grieve for those who have been lost, including Jake, Clara, and presumably Crown. Sportin’ Life appears, mocking their laments, and hints that Crown is still alive. Bess sings Clara’s own lullaby, Summertime, to Clara’s and Jakes’ baby. Under the cover of darkness, Crown steals in and approaches Porgy’s door, but Porgy is ready for him. Porgy strikes the first blow and kills Crown.

The next afternoon, the detective returns to Catfish Row, accompanied by the coroner. They are investigating Crown’s murder, but their questioning of Serena and two other women draws a blank. They go to Porgy’s room and tell him he must come with them and identify Crown’s body. Superstitiously afraid that he’ll have to look at Crown’s dead face, Porgy refuses to go and has to be dragged off. Taking advantage of Porgy’s absence, Sportin’ Life convinces Bess that Porgy will be locked up for certain, and he attempts to lure her away to a new life in the number There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon. When Bess spurns him, he forces some cocaine on her and leaves more outside her door as he leaves.

A week later, the inhabitants of Catfish Row greet each other at the beginning of another day. Porgy returns from jail in a jubilant mood. He distributes gifts that he has bought with money he won shooting craps in jail. He calls out for Bess, but there is no answer. Serena and Maria tell him that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life. Hearing this, Porgy decides to follow her–He can’t live without Bess. The inhabitants of Catfish Row join Porgy in the uplifting prayer O Lord, I’m On My Way as the curtain falls.

Meet the Composer

George Gershwin (1898–1937)

Born Jacob Gershwine in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898, Gershwin was an American pianist and composer whose compositions spanned both popular and classical genres. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris. His songs are famous — Swanee, Fascinating Rhythm, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm,The Man I Love and more. His most ambitious composition was the opera Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer and composition with Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell, and Joseph Brody. He began his career as a teenager, writing songs and playing piano. Gershwin left school at the age of 15 to work as a song plugger on New York City’s Tin Pan Alley. He earned $15 a week for Jerome H. Remick and Company, a Detroit-based publishing firm with a branch office in New York. His first published song was When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em in 1916. It earned the 17-year-old 50 cents.

Gershwin started recording and arranging songs for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in NewYork. He produced dozens of piano rolls under his own and assumed names (pseudonyms attributed to Gershwin include Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn). He also recorded rolls of his own compositions for the Duo-Art and Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos. In 1919 he scored his first big national hit with Swanee. Broadway star Al Jolson heard Gershwin perform Swanee at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows. Gershwin met songwriter and music director William Daly. The two collaborated on the Broadway musicals Piccadilly to Broadway in 1920 and For Goodness’ Sake in 1922. This was the beginning of a long friendship. Daly was a frequent arranger, orchestrator and conductor of Gershwin’s music.

In the early 1920s Gershwin frequently worked with the lyricist Buddy DeSylva. Together they created the experimental one-act jazz opera Blue Monday, set in Harlem. It is widely regarded as a forerunner to the groundbreaking Porgy and Bess, introduced in 1935. In 1924, George and Ira Gershwin collaborated on a stage musical comedy Lady Be Good, which included the hit Fascinating Rhythm.They followed this with Oh,Kay!, Funny Face, and Strike Up The Band. Gershwin allowed the song, with a modified title, to be used as a football fight song, Strike Up the Band for UCLA.

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger, who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel turned him down, afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?” Gershwin had a compelling interest in synthesizing jazz with classical music. His compositions for orchestra reflect this creativity, and while in Paris, he wrote An American in Paris. He returned to New York City where he and brother Ira created Porgy and Bess, based on the novel Porgy by Dubose Heyward.

He spent the summer of 1934 on Folly Island in South Carolina after he was invited to visit by Heyward. He was inspired to write Porgy and Bess while on this working vacation. His interest in synthesizing jazz with classical music was infused with the music he heard in South Carolina. Initially a commercial failure, Porgy and Bess came to be considered one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century and an American cultural classic, even if critics could not quite figure out how to evaluate it or decide whether it was opera or simply an ambitious Broadway musical.

Gershwin moved to Hollywood and composed numerous film scores. He died in 1937 of a brain tumor. His compositions have been adapted for use in film and television, with several becoming jazz standards recorded and covered in many variations.

Production

James Meena

Conductor

Du’Bois A’Keen

Director

Michael Baumgarten

Lighting and Projection Designer

Emily Jarrell Urbanek

Director of Music Preparation

Martha Ruskai

Wig and Makeup Designer

Valerie Wheeler

Production Stage Manager

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