The first act of this opera sets up the drama in a fully self-contained Black community working as fishermen for some and cotton sharecroppers for the rest. We are inside their living quarters that are devised as a fort with all rooms opening only onto the inside yard where everything happens. The community is shown as pretty idle though we understand we are on Saturday night and the activities are alcohol, a crap game, drugs (happy dust) and women. The drug dealer is Sporting Life. This situational composition leads to Robbins playing against Crown. Robbins is a plain member of the community, married to Serena, whereas Crown is more or less the local pimp who is dragging Bess around as his woman. Robbins wins and Crown refuses to lose and starts a fight and he kills Robbins, and runs with the money that had been given to him by Bess. Bess refuses the proposition from Sporting Life to go to New York with him and he goes away too. The scene turns into a dirge dedicated to the dead man.
Then the people are confronted to the police who want to arrest one man, no matter who and order the body to be buried by tomorrow or it will be taken to the medical school to be dissected by the students there. The community has to collect fifteen dollars to pay for the funeral. The undertaker is there to collect.
This act shows how this community is poor, cut off from the rest of society, form the whites, a sort of shared exclusion: the Blacks don't want to share anything with the whites and the whites don't want to have anything to do with the Blacks. But life is cruel in many ways. The Blacks have anyway directly or indirectly to work for the whites and every single event in the Black community may bring the white police in and that means trouble, though and since the Blacks refuse to tell anything to the police who are obliged to be blind and arrest the first man they want. And this one is Peter who accuses Crown, hence breaks the silence law of the Blacks toward the white police. Porgy, the crippled beggar of the community, refuses to confirm. Peter has doomed himself for the Blacks: they will not help. He is arrested as a material witness.
Then the act can proceed to the funeral, led by Bess.
The act so far shows how blocked in their alienation the Blacks are. Locked up in a closed community that depends on the whites outside for work and for all types of regulations, the rare businesses they can control are selling alcohol, selling drugs, providing women, and women are in a dependent state be they married or not, and undertaker (we will see later various peddlers: strawberries, crabs, etc.). But they suffer from their alienation to themselves as a community. Within their community there is a strict order and that order has to be respected and all Blacks have to be protected against the whites. So Crown has to be protected since he is Black though the murderer of a Black man, and he is considered as the top or strong man of the community and as such he has the right to kill if someone dares to win a crap game against him. The only positive point this opera shows is that the Blacks are able to sing their fate and dramas in swinging music. They are born "entertainers," musicians. They can transform any event into a musical evocation that is generally collective. They all take part in it, be it a religious occasion, or a plain everyday life occasion.
This situation is what will be called sixty-five years later or so Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome by the Blacks themselves who are trying to get over this alienated situation that has obviously pushed roots into the Blacks so deep that these roots have to be pulled out before ever even thinking of solving other problems. The Gershwins as well as the Heywards could not know the concept but they definitely are the pioneers of this concept on Broadway. Note Black authors at the very same time are starting to write about such situation, Richard Wright for example, but in the same way they are not able yet to identify the problem. They stay at the level of behaviorism: the environment of the Blacks produces the behaviors of the Blacks, and this approach is a progress on the social Darwinism of the end of the 19th century that considered such behaviors were hereditary: Blacks were born like that. In the 1920s-1930s they were made like by their social and cultural environment.
This opera is trying to show that the negative sides are not the only sides to be considered, but so far we have only been shown the negative sides, except the solidarity that appears during the funeral since the community collects the money for the undertaker: the widow cannot pay.
The second act starts with an essential dimension of the Blacks that gives them some freedom from this behaviorism of theirs. They believe in God, which is banal, but they project onto themselves the story of Moses taking the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. They believe in this Promised Land. The theme had appeared during the funeral but it could have been seen then as life after death. Now it is quite different because Jake is hitting the road to go to the Promised Land, meaning two things. It has to be undertaken by every single individuals. It is a land that has been promised to any one of them but it is not necessarily the same land. Each one has to go to his or her promised land. Jake in other words is going to discover the promised land he is looking for. This gives hope to the Blacks, but once again this hope is shared by all but has to be reached by every single individual among them on their own individual initiative, and within America. We can think the Gerschwins and the Heywards are answering the idea that was common in these years under the name of African Nationalism or Black Nationalism that wanted Black communities to be made entirely autonomous, some along with Marcus Garvey going as far as asking for a Black state in the USA. One of the hypothesis was for the USA to give the Blacks (or for the Blacks to take) what is called the Dust Bowl (The drought and erosion of the Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2), centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.)
The first business exchange is the buying of a divorce for Bess for one dollar fifty cents from a divorce peddler who pretends to be a lawyer, and later when a white man from the court comes to get the bail money for Peter from Porgy, Porgy sends him away telling him things have changed and calling these "peddlers" nothing but buzzards. Porgy's consciousness is changing: he becomes able to step back and look at himself and the situation he is inn though it confirms the fact that Peter cannot count on support from the Blacks.
But then it is picnic day, a big day of celebration for this Black community. They go spend the day on an island. Bess does not want to go and wants to stay with Porgy since Porgy cannot go, I guess because he is a cripple, but he more or less send Bess to the boat and she goes; The picnic is a day of liberation and it starts with Sporting Life and some other men making fun of religion by showing how things are not always what they seem to be or should be according to the Bible. But the day is to take a bad turn when Bess discovers Crown is here and the latter forces her to stay with him and to promise she will go with him when cotton is in. Note the other Black people went on the boat not even caring for what was happening to Bess and why she was missing.
The shift back to the community's base finds Bess, one week later, sick and having been absent two days. She is brought back to consciousness by some women singing Gospels. She tells Porgy she has been forced to say yes to Crown but she does not want to go. Porgy then takes over the responsibility and tells her he will deal with Crown when he comes.
This change in Porgy is extremely interesting. He is the one who is totally alienated in his social position, since he is a beggar; in his physical condition since he is a cripple; and in his ethnic position since he is Black. And it is this threefold-alienated man who only has three things in his life, "Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song!" who saves Bess and welcomes and shelters her when Crown runs away after his crime. He is the one who refuses to say what happens after the fatal crap game because that's the rule when dealing with the whites. And now, little by little he is the one who stands by a woman, her free will, her right to choose her life and her partner in life. He is the one who is developing a new sense of responsibility by caring for others and for their freedom. He is reconstructing a human mind in himself.
It is at this moment the woman, whose husband has got out to sea to fish comes up with the bad news of a hurricane that hits the community. The rendering of this storm and the tremendous anxiety for those out at sea is rendered musically by the second soprano, the tenor, the first soprano, the alto, the first bass and the second bass singing different solos one on top of the other, plus some more shorter interventions from other characters. This is not the best musical idea since then we cannot follow the words of any one of them. And yet the six solo pieces contain interesting elements to describe the situation and to define the various references to god. In order these references are "Doctor Jesus," "Lawd above," "Hev'nly Father," "Professor Jesus," "Captain Jesus," "Father." It is impossible to enter the richness of these six visions and the result is nothing but linguistic havoc. That is supposed to render the violence of the hurricane, but it crushes down the meaning of the solo parts.
It is in the heart of this hurricane that some knocking is heard at the door. Crown comes in to take Bess. She refuses, and Porgy tells him to keep off. At this moment Clara who is fearing for Jake who has gone fishing in the hurricane asks for some man to help her check if Jake's boat is back. Only Crown responds and rushes out. And then the six soloists of the beginning of the scene sing again their six solos one on top of the other. It is still impossible to differentiate the words and meanings.
This ending of the second act is very dramatic but extremely ambiguous. Bess and Porgy are slowly capturing their independence in front of their community and Crown. But in the danger of this hurricane only Crown was out and came in and he is also the only one who responded to a call for help. He does not lack courage and yet he is a murderer who killed for the innings of a crap game and he is a male chauvinist who refuses to give his woman any freedom: she is his possession. On the other hand it is quite obvious Porgy cannot compete since he is a cripple. Maybe he would be courageous if he had the necessary body.
The third act starts after the storm with a chorus in honor of the absent men, Jake and Crown. Maria and Sporting Life are considering what was lost in the hurricane and Bess is taking care of Selena's baby. Crown comes in to claim his woman but he is killed by Porgy with a knife in his back twice while he was trying to crawl on all fours under Porgy's window. In a way this end is not very heroic.
The detective and coroner come for some investigation and take Porgy along as a witness to certify the identity of the victim, Crown. They suspect Serena, the wife of Crown's victim, Robbins but can't prove anything and they go with Porgy. Then Sporting Life is alone with Bess and he tries to convince her to come with him to New York by tempting her with his drugs. It does not seem to work and he leaves. But Bess comes back for the dope and goes.
The last scene is the return of Porgy after his stint in prison for contempt of court because he refused to identify Crown. He has presents for a few people, including a red dress for Bess. But Bess is not there and no one dares tell him where she is. Finally Maria and Serena tell him the truth. He is told Bess has left for New York. So he gets his cart and his goat and leaves. He is on his way to a Heavenly Land.
This ending is surprising since it amplifies the love story between two people who had nothing in common, but at the same time it makes that love story impossible. We all know that finding Bess in New York, or even only Harlem;, will be like finding a pin in a haystack, if not even worse. This ending is definitely liberating Porgy from his alienation. He can cut off his mooring and go. He is on his way to the Promised Land. He has jumped over the obstacle and he is moving again away from his unbearable situation; All that is the name of love and symbolical of a real liberation of that Black man.
But Bess is the bad one in that tale. She goes away from the man who had bought her a divorce, who had killed her ex-husband, who had liberated her from all enslavement, and yet she falls for some dope, the promise of being a "woman" in New York, hence a prostitute in the hands of a pimp and drug dealer.
It is of course, once again a rewriting of Romeo and Juliet, but a tremendous number of obstacles are piled up in front of them: an age difference, a social difference, a physical handicap on one side, the fact that the woman was attached to an authoritarian man, the use of dope and the practice of prostitution. The worst obstacle is that she cannot live alone one single minute. And after Porgy's being taken away and detained by the police she had to stay alone for a few days. She did not even wait five minutes. And yet Porgy abandons everything and goes after her. His love is so strong that he can take the road to New York, no matter how physically challenged he may be, with no resources, no income, no money, nothing at all, except a goat which is not going to be very helpful on the road.
The opera sure tells something about the persistence of a Black man when he is in love: he can fight, kill, serve, find full freedom in this new dependence. But it also says a lot about the Black woman who is dependent by "nature," weak and in great need of protection which is close to possession. She is not able to see her real interest in love and prefers the evanescent pleasure and thrill of dope and street walking under the proprietary control of one man.
This is a beautiful story but how does it help the Blacks to step into their future? It did in 1936 by producing a musical on Broadway that had a tremendous success and that was showing a nearly entirely Black cast. It also showed the real triple alienation of a black man like Porgy, the double alienation of all Black people, the similar double alienation of all Black women and an alienation that cannot be numbered at all for the Black woman Bess: she is nothing but a possession and she is the property of the man who has the strongest and last word. That's no longer alienation. This is self-fetishization: Bess transforms herself into a toy in the hands of the latest man who takes control of her: she is both a sex toy, an economic toy, a social toy, but she will also be a boxing toy of some type sooner or later, and she will accept it . . . of course.
This picture of the Black woman is amazing in 1936, not because Black prostitutes did not exist. They did. But because she is made the central character of the opera. That's pathetic and tragic at the same time. She really sounds like a Black Lulu (composed though not completed in 1935 on the model written by Frank Wedekind in 1895 and 1904).
Dr Jacques COIULARDEAU