Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks Blazes a New Trail and Re-Imagines ‘Porgy and Bess’

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright took on the challenge of adapting a folk classic for a contemporary black audience

How does The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess speak to a new contemporary audience?

A lot of people have heard of Porgy and Bess but they haven’t had any firsthand experience with it. Maybe they’ve seen a bit of the movie or they’ve heard of it. And even when people say they know Porgy and Bess they really mean they know the music.  So many people know “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” They know “Bess You Is My Women.” They know “I Loves Your Porgy.”  They know “Summertime.” I can’t remember how many times I have traveled around the world and heard a version of “Summertime” performed. Most people know the music but they don’t know the story behind it. Even some people who have seen the opera or the movie aren’t really clear on the story. Porgy and Bess is a great love story. I wanted to flesh out some of the characters.  I have added some words; I have added some scenes (some of the original opera’s scenes were too stereotypical).  Every word that you hear has been checked by me.

How do you respond to the criticisms about making revisions to this musical?

People are always going to say something. You know a lot of people who have critiqued it haven’t seen it yet. I respect Stephen Sondheim. He is one of my favorite composers in the entire universe. But I wish he had seen the show before he said anything negative about it. Some people want to see the show in its purest state. But the opera is based on the book Porgy written by DuBose Heyward (in 1925).  He and his wife adapted the novel into a play (in 1927). Then they adapted the play with the Gershwins into an opera (in 1935). All three works deal with black life in the (fabled) Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1920s. So, now we are taking the version of the opera and adapting it into a Broadway musical for today’s audience.

Who should come see The Gerswhins’ Porgy and Bess?

Everybody should see this musical, especially black people. There are so many reasons. It’s smart. It’s real. It makes you cry and laugh at the same time.  Like I said it’s a great love story.                

Historical notes: Originally conceived by George and Ira Gershwin as an “American folk opera”, Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, featuring an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers.  The 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess was refashioned into a musical. A film version of the musical starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis, Jr. was adapted in 1959.

Parks, along with other black female playwrights, will be profiled on BlackEnterprise.com throughout this month in conjunction with Black Enterprise magazine’s December 2012 “The New Look of Broadway” issue.

Check out Alicia Keys, Whoppi Goldberg, Stephen Byrd, and other black Broadway producers who are in the Business of Broadway in the December 2011 issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine, on newsstands now.

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