Porgy and Bess: An Intersection of Black and Jewish American Theater History

Written by Kol HaBirah Staff on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

The National Philharmonic’s 2017-2018 season at The Music Center at Strathmore is celebrating Black History Month with Jewish composer George Gershwin’s groundbreaking opera, “Porgy and Bess.” The simply staged concert opera, conducted by Philharmonic Chorale Artistic Director Stan Engebretson, features an all-African American cast in the major singing roles; this was an estate stipulation from Gershwin, who died in 1937, so as to forbid white singers from performing in blackface.

The opera tells the poignant story of Porgy, a crippled street beggar in Charleston, South Carolina, who pines for his romantic interest, Bess. Baritone Kevin Deas, portraying Porgy, and soprano Marlissa Hudson, portraying Bess, lead the ensemble, accompanied by the nearly 180-member National Philharmonic Chorale and members of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Choir. The performance is sponsored by Patricia Haywood Moore and Dr. Roscoe M. Moore, Jr.

Few of the Broadway musicals Gershwin contributed to are as popular and revered to this day as is "Porgy and Bess," which premiered on Broadway in 1935 to mixed reviews. It closed after a four month run but went on to become a beloved fixture in American theatre.  The opera is based on American author DuBose Heyward’s novel, "Porgy" (1925), which gave a groundbreaking perspective in its portrayal of African American characters as emotionally and psychologically complex, paving the way for a Southern Renaissance of writers that included William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. For his “American Folk Opera,” Gershwin spent time studying African American music and culture in the rural South. The opera was originally criticized for having a work based on “lowly” pop music. Conversely, black audiences criticized the work for its stereotyped characters. However, the composition became a cornerstone of quintessentially American music, and was even selected by the U.S. State Department in 1952 to represent the country on an international tour.

Born in 1898, Gershwin was an American composer famous for his Broadway musical theater as well as for his orchestral and piano compositions. A musical genius who began his musical studies at age 11, Gershwin dropped out of school at 15 and worked musical odd jobs through his teenage years. His reputation preceded his work, side jobs increasingly turned into accompaniment for popular singers and for rehearsals for Broadway musicals. The compositional history of "Porgy and Bess,"Gershwin’s most ambitious work, represents the fulfillment of Gershwin’s long-nurtured desire to compose a new kind of opera, one that would blend the classical operatic genre with the elements of jazz, popular music, and folk music that were so much a part of his career as a Broadway composer.

Kevin Deas, of international renown as one of America’s leading bass-baritones, is most acclaimed for his riveting portrayal of the title role in Porgy and Bess with the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and others. American soprano Marlissa Hudson, who plays Bess, has performed in concerts in Bulgaria, Paraguay, Brazil, and the United States and is also the soprano soloist with the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Other performers in "Porgy and Bess" include Michael Redding as Crown, Chauncey Packer as Sportin’ Life, Aundi Moore as Serena, Edward Pleasant as Jake, NaGuanda Nobles as Carla and Maria, and Colin Eaton as Mingo and Peter Robbins.

To purchase tickets for the performances and for a complete schedule, please visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org or call the Strathmore Ticket Office at 301.581.5100. Tickets are $25-$82; young people 7-17 are free through the ALL KIDS, ALL FREE, ALL THE TIME program. ALL KIDS tickets must be purchased in person or by phone. Complimentary parking is available.