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Porgy, Bess and Uncle Tom : THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PORGY AND BESS; The Story of an American Classic By Hollis Alpert (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 346 pp.)

November 04, 1990|Itabari Njeri | Njeri, a Times staff writer and former musician, is the author of "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone," (Times Books), winner of a 1990 American Book Award. and

Picture this. Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures allegedly proposed to George Gershwin: If "Porgy and Bess" makes it to the screen, "we could cast Al Jolson as Porgy, Fred Astaire as Sportin' Life . . . and Rita Hayworth as Bess." As Hollis Alpert reports in this journalistically styled survey, however, Gershwin by no means fancied the notion of a white cast in black face; earlier he had refused the same proposal from Jolson himself, agreeing with DuBose Heyward, the writer who created the seminal 1925 novel, "Porgy," that the story was meant for a black cast.

Set in 1912, "Porgy and Bess" purports to depict the harsh realities of life in Catfish Row, a Charleston, S.C., slum inhabited by blacks who speak Gullah, a Creole tongue that mixes English and West African languages. Porgy, an honorable, philosophical cripple on a goat-drawn cart, falls in love with Bess, a former prostitute kept by a murderous brute named Crown. Sportin' Life, a drug-peddling devil incarnate, tempts Bess from the path to salvation--the love of a good man.

Alpert's book focuses on those responsible for creating "Porgy and Bess" and on the behind-the-scenes struggle to stage the play and then the opera. Alpert sketches portraits of Heyward, his wife Dorothy, the Gershwins, acclaimed film maker Rouben Mamoulian--director of the play and the first opera production--and Robert Breen, the general director of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) in the 1950s. Breen, whose life became enmeshed in the "Porgy and Bess" saga from the 1950s until his death in the 1970s, organized a tour of "Porgy and Bess" during the Cold War and fought to bring his stage version of the opera to the movie screen. He failed on the last score: Otto Preminger directed the critically unheralded motion picture.

While succeeding generations of critics have not taken Heyward seriously as either a writer or dramatist, Alpert sees him as "one of the most important influences in opening up the American stage to black participation. The large casts for 'Porgy' as both play and opera gave great opportunity to a host of black performers, made new black stars, and gave white and mixed audiences a new appreciation of the talents of black performing artists. . . . It is a contribution that lives on."

Alpert also acknowledges, however, that since the opera opened in New York, many African Americans have found it to be a kind of Uncle Tomism, a rip-off of black culture. Some of Gershwin's black detractors even have suggested that the music was stolen outright from melodies heard in black churches and then exploited for profit.

There is some truth in these theories. That Gershwin culled African-American musical sources for "Porgy and Bess" has never been in doubt. Gershwin said so himself, as Alpert's book reports. But he used them as inspiration. It was not outright appropriation, as some still like to claim. In fact, as Alpert's book points out, Duke Ellington criticized the opera not only for its stereotypical portrayal of blacks but for its ersatz black music: "The times are here . . . to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms." And he complained that "the music does not hitch with the mood and spirit of the story. It does not use the Negro musical idiom." Still, Ellington thought it "grand music and a swell play, but the two didn't go together."

With every generation, Alpert points out, black criticism of "Porgy and Bess" became harsher. Thirty-two years after the opera's New York opening, Harold Cruse, in his "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual," called the work "the most contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World." He went so far as to demand that blacks never perform in it.

Some modern-day resentment toward the play stems from the way the State Department exploited it during the Cold War to counter Communist propaganda about the virtual "enslavement" of black Americans. Breen, the American National Theater director, saw the tour as an "opportunity to show how blacks were rising in the cultural firmament," Alpert reports, "and at the same time to nullify propaganda about their lack of opportunity."

But while foreign audiences embraced "Porgy and Bess" casts featuring, among others, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Maya Angelou and Cab Calloway, these artists had a tougher time at home. They were forced to use the "colored only" bathrooms in a suburban Washington restaurant, Alpert writes; to eat their food in a special basement room of the restaurant, and to use the back door of the Willard Hotel in the nation's capital to get to their hotel rooms--which they had to find themselves once handed a key.

Truman Capote, whom Alpert paints as a waspish and unethical journalist, wrote about the Russian tour of "Porgy and Bess" and shrewdly guessed that Soviet permission for the tour came from the "opera's message about people being happy when they have 'plenty of nothin'.' "

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