Staged at the London Coliseum, Cape Town Opera’s production of Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' relocated the work’s enduring message by shifting the action to apartheid-era Soweto. Richard Downes went looking for something that is not missing.
The Porgy Opera retains a confused identity. Porgy started life as a book written by a white man about black people. He teamed up with the Gershwins to develop what is now an opera.
The programme notes tell us this black opera, written by a Jew, was staged in Nazi Germany. Post war it was used as a weapon of cultural warfare by the American government whilst they continued to oppress black people through segregation and worse.
Issues relating to poverty, drugs, pimps and murder resulted in the opera being vilified as racist. Students of sexism could find much to mock in the portrayal of women. Characters are one-dimensional - seen as stereotypes.
What is often unreported is Porgy is labeled a 'cripple' and through this continually referenced to as less than a man, only part man. Yet he's the romantic lead, the hero in an unravelling tragedy. Tragic and brave!
We meet Porgy returning home from work. We are not told what his work is. He rolls onto stage on a broad skateboard, disabled from the knees down. Xolele Sixaba will continue to show strength of voice throughout the performance. But herein lies an operatic rub. Research shows that regardless of language an audience will only understand 2% of the words. I am thankful for a digital display of the words. Given this is high above the stage and I am sitting close by, my attention and eyesight goes from one spot to another.
"Summertime. Nothing can harm you."
Porgy comments on his attraction to Bess, only to be scorned, Yet he expects this as he sings "when god makes a cripple he means him to be lonely", "a lonesome beggar" (was this his work). The town folk chorus confirmation by revealing "he is of no use".
A murder happens. Crown, Bess's lover is the killer. Porgy shelters Bess. Crown goes on the run. We are now told Bess is helping Porgy. She becomes a carer regardless of whether she and Porgy are getting it on and as this is a love story I presume they are.
Bess seems content with life; less obviously sexual, off drugs, away from bad men and apparently happy with domestic life. Porgy admits happily to having "plenty of nothing". Bess is heard to say to the returned Crown: "He's a cripple and he needs my love".
Crown brutalises Bess. She becomes unwell and is prayed over. Healers are in the mix. Bess returns to us and in 'I Loves You Porgy' pleads to him to not let Crown take her back. Porgy commits to this and in keeping his word experiences his downfall. Porgy kills Crown, boasting to Bess: "you've got a man now", before the police take him away and Bess runs off to New York with Sportin' Life, a drug pusher.
Porgy comes back, having fooled the police (who incidentally never sing) and commits to following Bess for 1,000 miles. This causes some amusement as at no time did anyone ever seek to make his dwelling accessible and never did he seem to be wholly safe on his skateboard. And given the way he flops around, I couldn't see him getting on a bus. Mind you during the encore he stands up, so was never crippled at all - just acting!
However, this is where the next act should start. Porgy and Bess remain black, Porgy remains disabled, the transport system, the housing situation and bad attitudes improve. Religious overtones are dropped from the movie we are making and Porgy and Bess do it on reconciliation. The score is jazz and folk.
Given the racist accusation around the opera is it not surprising that issues of racism are taken up and dealt with so well by Cape Town Opera? The best that can be said of Porgy and Bess is it comes from observations of life and lifestyles. As such horrors permeating throughout the piece can be seen as warnings. Conditions Porgy and Bess lived in are replicated across the world.
Poverty, racism, sexism, disablism, class differences, displacement and their consequences; drugs, knives, murder, disempowerment, are revealed.
The shame is they remain unresolved.