It doesn’t take much more than the first few notes of “Summertime” to conjure up the 1935 folk opera, Porgy and Bess. On Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, catch a live performance from the opera by actors in Chicago’s latest production of the George and Ira Gershwin classic.
Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, and Bess, the woman he loves. Bess is dominated by her current lover, Crown, who is a dangerous threat to the safety of both Bess and Porgy.
The opera has played in cities as varied as Vienna, Milan, and Moscow. It was the first American production to play in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad, and the opening night audience gave the African American cast a 10-minute standing ovation.
Although its first production featured Anne Brown and Todd Duncan in the title roles, stars like Sidney Poitier, Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis Jr. acted in other productions. At one point, Maya Angelou played a role.
The novel that the opera was modeled on was written by DuBose Heyward. Heyward wrote a stage version of his original novel, Porgy, which was later converted into a libretto by its original author. Heyward wrote a number of the songs in the opera, including “Summertime,” “A Woman is a Sometime Thing,” and “My Man’s Gone Now.”
Heyward, a native South Carolinian, was part of the primitivism movement that began in France around the turn of the century and moved to the U.S. Primitivism depicted non-Westernized characters enjoying an innocence that modern man cannot reach—an innocence that is clear in Porgy’s existence.
The opera brought up many issues of race in the United States, as many opera houses at the time were segregated or simply closed to African Americans. Its opening was delayed because the Metropolitan Opera, which originally commissioned it, would only allow white actors in blackface to portray the characters. Porgy and Bess’ depiction of an African American underclass has been alternately criticized and praised throughout its run, but it continues to thrill audiences across the country.
Porgy and Bess is playing at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park through June 19.
For more information, visit the Court Theatre website.