‘Porgy and Bess’ Stirs Discussions on Race Relations

By Kalia Kornegay, November 30, 2016

‘Porgy and Bess’ Stirs Discussions on Race Relations

“Porgy and Bess” is one of the most frequently performed operas in the country because it presents a view of race relations between African-American and white communities during the 1930s that still resonates today. 

Set in a fictional Charleston, S.C. neighborhood called Catfish Row, it centers on a love story between a crippled beggar named Porgy and Bess, a woman seeking to escape her past of drugs and prostitution.

The iconic work, an English-language opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, was performed on Oct. 9 in Ford Hall. The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, students from Ithaca College’s School of Music, and the IC Symphony Orchestra worked with guest conductor Leslie Dunner to perform in front of a sold-out audience.

In addition to the main performance, members of the production held a panel to discuss the issues of race and class that come up in the opera. Kenneth Overton, founder of Opera Noire of New York, starred as Porgy and spoke during the panel about his past experiences playing the character. He has been involved with the opera in some role since 1999, and has acted as Porgy a total of nine times on several stages around the world. He said the opera carries a great amount of relevance, especially in today’s society.

“I believe it’s always important to expose students and the community that may not always see it or get to see it to this music, to this work,” Overton said. “There are so many talented students here, especially students of color, so it’s a nice addition for them to feel included and comfortable and able to see professional actors who look like them. It’s continually important.”

Featured guest Ellen Noonan, author of “The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera,” was also a member of the panel and discussed the various renditions of “Porgy and Bess” throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. She said since its inception on Broadway, the opera made history as one of the first such works with an all-black cast. However, a few of the black actors had to wear black face during the performances in order to play up the perception of black skin.

“Despite stereotypes, it acknowledged the power of the African-American presence,” Noonan said. “Black Americans finally had the opportunity to see people who looked like them in the entertainment and arts industry.”

Given the increasing coverage of race relations in the media, Overton expressed how he takes everything in and portrays the emotions he is feeling during each performance.

“I think with everything that’s going in the news, whenever America experiences tragedy, whether it’s terrorism or police brutality, we call on music to heal; we call on music to make us feel better or get those emotions out of ourselves,” he said. “That’s what ‘Porgy and Bess’ does. It unites us all through the music.”