The last time Porgy and Bess came to the Dock Street Theatre, things didn’t go so well. It was the early 1950s, and after weeks of auditions, set construction, and rehearsals with the entirely African-American cast, the production was cancelled because they couldn’t figure out how to segregate the theater. More than 60 years later, the Footlight Players are presenting the opera’s Dock Street debut under the direction of Henry Clay Middleton.
Footlight’s Executive Director Jocelyn Jenkins has been working for two years to secure the rights to Porgy and Bess, because the copyright owners typically only grant performance rights to venues with more than 1,000 seats (the Dock Street seats 450). Luckily, the owners made an exception for the Footlight Players because of the opera’s deep ties to the Holy City. Written by DuBose Heyward, who was also one of the theater’s earliest board members, the play is also set in downtown Charleston and Kiawah Island.
Although the original script was written by Heyward, Porgy and Bess was a collaboration between Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin. Written while staying on Folly Beach, the opera tells the story of a crippled, African-American man, Porgy, who loses his heart to drug-addicted Bess. “It’s just such a huge undertaking … the importance of the show and what it means to the community,” says Middleton, who previously directed A Raisin in the Sun and Crowns at Footlight. He’s also played a recurring role on Army Wives.
Footlight’s commitment to the original script is notable, because other major productions have featured altered scripts — including the current Broadway production starring Audra McDonald, which received a Tony Award earlier this summer. Director Diane Paulus and her co-writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, added new scenes, biographical information on some characters, and even changed the ending of the original. In an interview with The New York Times, a trustee of the Dubose and Dorothy Heyward fund, Albert Cardinali, said, “We’ve certainly given them some leeway … It’s about balancing the original work’s intentions with a story that is maybe more realistic for a present-day audience.” Also speaking with The New York Times, Parks said she wanted to further develop the two main characters and that she believes George Gershwin would have made the same changes, including the ending, if he had lived longer.
“They changed a lot of things because, I personally think, there was some concern about stereotypes,” Middleton says. Porgy and Bess has been controversial since its inception in 1934, partially because some consider the opera’s portrayal of African Americans to be racist, while others argue that it brings racial issues to light. “We can’t ignore the way things were,” Middleton says. “This is a slice of life from that period.”
As for the all-important music, Richard Show is in charge of the musical direction. “It’s been a joy working with him,” Middleton says. “It’s so important to the show that we see things the same way.” Orchestra member Tacy Edwards took the original orchestral score and reduced it down for a 12-person orchestra. “That’s hours upon hours of work,” Show says. “And she did a fabulous job.” The opera includes some of the Gershwins’ most famous songs like “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin.”
College of Charleston alum Brandon Allen will play Porgy, and Michal S. Johnson, a current student, will play Bess. They always wanted to perform together while in school, but could never find the right show. “They started singing together and we knew it was them,” Middleton says. They have been practicing together outside of rehearsal times to make sure everything is perfect. Meanwhile, other actors are taking on multiple roles. “We have a lot of people die and come back,” Middleton jokes. “We hope the audience will forgive us.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of George Gershwin’s death, so Middleton and his crew feel the timing is right. “We realized there’s only one way to do it, and that’s right.”