Opening 28 Jan 2010
Porgy & Me is a documentary about the touring ensemble from the New York Harlem Theatre who has performed Gershwin’s black opera, Porgy and Bess, on the world stage for decades. The troupe, crossing generations and backgrounds, forms a fully functioning, supportive and loving family surrogate. “I’ve been Porgy for ten years now. …sometimes it feels so real, when you’re doing it… night after night… like a never-ending journey,” says Terry Lee Cook. The heartfelt emotive stories the protagonists share with us are better understood knowing the opera’s history.
In 1935 George and Ira Gershwin debuted their “American folk opera” Porgy and Bess, spotlighting the lives of African-Americans in the 1920s living in fictitious Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. Crippled Porgy lives in this slum and tries to rescue Bess from her violent, possessive lover Crown, and Sportin' Life, the drug dealer. Controversial (with bravado, Gershwin premiered the opera using an entire cast of classically trained African-Americans) and criticized (for a racist portrayal of the black community, i.e., imbued in violence, ignorance and drugs), Porgy and Bess was not widely accepted as legitimate opera in the USA until 1976 when it was performed in Houston, Texas. It has since been recognized as standard operatic repertoire, both is the U.S. and abroad.
Writer/director Susanna Boehm‘s documentary focuses on the lifelong struggles the protagonists have risen above to make a living as black opera singers, to reach this pinnacle of success. Although, as Altelouise DeVaughn/Lily points out early on, for some black professional singers, singing in Porgy and Bess is anathema to ending your career. Concurring they have had to overcome stereotypes, for many poverty, drugs and violent behavior was an integral part of their childhood. Boehm (Cook’s real-life wife) admits her co-director Julia Gechter had a distance to the cast that allowed her to ask tougher questions.
Drawing on people from their pasts in playing the characters, the protagonists challenge their preconceptions of race as well. Clear is their deep faith and positive outlook on life; Jeramine Smith/Sportin' Life encapsulates it best, “(you) step outside the box… and never go back.” Carefully interwoven are dazzling musical scenes from the opera and footage of their gruelling schedule on the road, enhanced by George Cragg’s astute editing. “(One has to) open yourself up to believe and act the character convincingly and use that and let yourself soar.” This uplifting film leaves you feeling good. (Marinell Haegelin)