“Porgy and Bess,” the now iconic opera that premiered in the United States in 1935, tells the tragic and heroic story of a Southern African-American ghettoemploying some of the most memorable music in the musical theater canon. Composer George Gershwin denied licensing rights to companies that wanted to use white performers in the opera (requiring black make-up) and his estate still stipulates that the work be performed by an all-black cast, or rights will be denied.
It will not shock anyone who has read much here to learn that I oppose Gershwin’s all-black edict, just as I oppose objections to actors of any race being prohibited from playing characters of different races. The only question should be whether the production and artistic version is fair to the work and to the audience. Prior restraint of any vision is antithetical to the spirit of the performing arts. I happen to think that a white version of “A Raisin in the Sun” would be ill-advised, but how do I know for sure? I’ve been proven wrong before, and more to the point, I’ve proven others wrong with my own productions.
The inevitable result of Gershwin’s grandstanding, for I believe that’s what it was, is that most people never have a chance to see a full production of “Porgy and Bess.” Yet there is no reason why the cast would have to be all black. Let’s even put aside the inflammatory issue of “black-face.” Some characters in the show, like the snake-like hustler Sporting Life, could be portrayed as white without distorting the show one bit. Non-traditional casting principles would argue that the whole cast could consist of whites, Asians and others playing the black characters. It would be fun—yes, I think of this kind of principled fight as fun—to cast the show with light skinned African-Americans and mixed race performers who identify as black. What would the Gershwin estate do about that, I wonder? Continue reading