Questions of race have been central to an understanding of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), yet the opera’s portrayal of whiteness remains an aspect hidden in plain sight. While focusing on a Black community living under Jim Crow segregation, the work also features five white characters—a Detective and two police officers, a Coroner, and a lawyer—whose actions affect the lives of the people of Catfish Row in three often overlooked sections of the opera. Through close readings of the score, literary antecedents, and recorded as well as live performances, this article examines the relational role that whiteness plays in the compositional architecture and production history of Porgy and Bess. To show how the opera’s complex social dynamics are embedded in its musical structure, I employ an interdisciplinary approach combining musicological analysis with critical race theory, which pinpoints racial formation as a key component of Gershwin’s score. The article’s central analysis of the score reveals nuanced portrayals of Jim Crow race relations, highlighted by both multilayered expressions of white supremacy and powerful moments of Black resistance. These nuances, however, depend on reading the opera in its complete state, yet the three Black/white exchanges are often heavily altered in performance. To further understand how staging these scenes can affect their meanings, I investigate several key productions from across the opera’s history. Concluding with the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019–20 production, I reflect that the depictions of police brutality, white supremacy, and Black resistance in Porgy and Bess are more painfully relevant today than ever before.

Content Warning: This article quotes from historical sources that contain racial slurs that are disturbing and may be triggering. We have chosen not to reproduce the racial slurs in full, replacing some letters with asterisks. We do not wish to sanitize what historical speakers and writers have said, but neither do we wish to create additional harm via the unnecessary and insensitive repetition of offensive terms.

High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk.

W. E. B. Du Bois1

Buckra: a Gullah Geechee word meaning “white man”

Derivation: Ibibio and Efik, m1ba1ka2ra2, lit. “he who surrounds and governs”2

In September 1959, author and activist James Baldwin published a review of Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of Porgy and Bess. Baldwin leveled a scathing critique at the film, yet took a more ambivalent view of the work on which it was based. On one hand, he deemed it “an extraordinarily vivid, good-natured, and sometimes moving show,” albeit one that in his estimation fell short of being a “great American opera.”3 At the same time, he raised an issue that has haunted Porgy and Bess throughout its history:

What has always been missing from Gershwin’s opera is what the situation of Porgy and Bess says about the white world. It is because of this omission that Americans are so proud of the opera. It assuages their guilt about Negroes and it attacks none of their fantasies. Since Catfish Row is clearly such a charming place to live, there is no need for them to trouble their consciences about the fact that the people living there are still not allowed to move anywhere else.4

Baldwin writes of a willful ignorance underlying white perceptions of the opera, reasoning that its creators failed to illuminate the oppressive reality of segregation that Black Americans experienced during the Jim Crow era in which it is set. He frames this as an omission, something absent, something the opera appears to leave unsaid.

With the phrase “the white world,” Baldwin evoked Harlem Renaissance leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who used the phrase as a chapter title in his 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn. Describing a racial caste system in the United States, Du Bois argued that it was “impossible … to avoid facing the fact of a white world which is today dominating human culture and working for the continued subordination of the colored races.”5 Du Bois followed his interrogation of whiteness with a chapter titled “The Negro World Within,” emphasizing the relational aspects of race and inequality, a powerful theme in Harlem Renaissance thought. Indeed, Black authors, poets, and composers of the period often positioned an oppressive white society as critical in representations of Black American life, telling stories of cyclical struggle, resistance, and violence during the postbellum retrenchment of white supremacy.6 But while many Harlem Renaissance creators were articulating the experience of being Black in a white racist society, the period was also marked by fevered white fascination with the Black world “within.”

The 1930s gave rise to interpretations of Black culture by white artists in many mediums, including opera. Such works as Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones (1933) and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) presented complicated visions of Blackness on prominent operatic and theatrical stages,7 even as Black composers were blocked from those same venues.8 Among the white-authored works, however, none stands out more than Porgy and Bess (1935), with music by George Gershwin and a libretto by DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, which has endured on account of its resilient popularity and widespread cultural impact.9 A work about poor African Americans—performed by a predominantly Black cast and created by two white and two Jewish American authors—Porgy and Bess sits at a nexus of tangled musical and literary ideas about racial difference. Despite a moving veristic story and transcendent score, its portrayals of violence, drug use, promiscuity, and poverty have been criticized for advancing harmful stereotypes about Blackness, and a substantial body of literature has investigated these representations and their reception.10 Indeed, the central problem of the opera’s racial politics—white representation of a Black world—has been approached from numerous critical angles.

The many analyses of Porgy and Bess that focus on race have, however, tended to overlook a key element of race relations: alongside the opera’s portrayal of Black life, it also depicts the white world.11 Each of the three acts in the opera’s complete published form contains a scene in which white characters—an unnamed Detective and two policemen, an unnamed Coroner, and a lawyer named Archdale—interact with the people of Catfish Row.12 Each of these encounters involves a distinctly operatic construction of racial difference: the Black characters sing while the white characters can only speak. Recalling Baldwin’s comments about something missing from Porgy and Bess, these white characters seem to be defined by absence, both in their inability to sing and in that they have passed largely unnoticed through the opera’s history. But the presence of white society in this work about a Black community in the Jim Crow South raises critical questions. What work does whiteness do in the opera? How do the authors construct the white world in relation to Catfish Row, and how can these constructions help us better understand the opera’s treatment of Blackness? What are the stakes of performing these portrayals of race relations, and how can decisions about staging affect their meaning?

This article explores the Black/white encounters in Porgy and Bess through close readings of the published score, archival sources, literary antecedents, and recorded as well as live performances. Building on existing literature, including recent race-centered opera studies,13 I argue that whiteness informs the work’s compositional architecture and helps us to understand the construction of Blackness within a complex set of musical and racial formations.14 These racialized encounters not only illuminate white interpretations of Blackness but also serve to articulate Black experience and Jim Crow segregation in powerful ways. Although Porgy and Bess’s imagining of Black American life is flawed and incomplete, placing its representation of Blackness in dialogue with that of whiteness offers new insights into the work, its historical context, and its lasting cultural relevance.

Examining whiteness in an opera that centers Black Americans raises serious concerns, as does focusing on whiteness in a medium—opera itself—whose traditions and history are overwhelmingly white. As sociologist Margaret L. Andersen writes, whiteness studies risks “eclipsing the study of racial power, focusing solely on white identity, and analyzing ‘whiteness’ in the absence of the experience of people of color.”15 I strive to keep this article trained primarily on the impact white society has on Black lives both on and off the operatic stage, with the goal of exploring the opera’s layers of whiteness to further our understanding of its complicated relationship with Blackness. To that end, I employ an interdisciplinary approach that combines musicological analysis with critical race theory and Black feminist writings, alongside those of Harlem Renaissance–era thinkers such as Du Bois. I am also indebted to Naomi André, both for her nuanced intersectional analyses of Porgy and Bess and for the method she calls “engaged musicology,” which considers opera’s historical contexts and present-day resonance, while remaining sensitive to the positions of authors, performers, and audiences.16 As André argues, “Even though we might not have noticed, or want to admit it, the types of questions we bring to our work are directly tied to our perspectives and experiences.”17 My questions come from the perspective of a white male musicologist and audience member, and I try to engage the connections between my own subjective experience and the examination of whiteness, power, and privilege that fuels this study.18 This forms part of an approach to Porgy and Bess that lays bare in microcosm something that has long been true in the operatic world, the musicological field, and US society: whiteness has been hiding in plain sight.

The article unfolds in three broad sections. The first establishes a historical context for the opera’s Black/white interactions through an analysis of the work’s literary sources—DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel and Dorothy Heyward’s 1927 adaptation of the novel into a play. The second section, building on analytical studies that have explored the intricacies of Gershwin’s score, offers new insights into the role of race in structuring Porgy and Bess.19 My close reading of the three scenes involving white characters, including consideration of the racial slurs in the original text, brings into focus powerful moments of Black resistance and agency, which seem to push against the opera’s own prejudices. Turning to the operatic stage, the third section argues that the power of these scenes becomes fully evident only in performance. Here, I reconstruct the staging of the opera’s Black/white encounters in several key productions across its eighty-five-year history, and consider how those decisions dramatically affect its portrayal of race relations. Concluding with the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019–20 revival, I reflect on what performing Porgy and Bess in the present moment tells us about racial representation in opera today, and why the work’s vivid depictions of police brutality and white supremacy remain painfully relevant.

The white narrative running through Porgy and Bess can be traced through both the play and the novel, revealing how the opera’s constructions of whiteness took shape and informed its representations of Black life. Looking behind the narrative to what Toni Morrison calls “the describers and imaginers”—here, the Heywards, and later, George Gershwin—helps to pinpoint the multiple levels on which whiteness does its work.20 Whiteness becomes integral in the narrative’s “racial regime,” to borrow historian Cedric J. Robinson’s term for “constructed social systems in which race is proposed as a justification for the relations of power.”21 In other words, white identity serves as a structural orientation for categorizing difference, the oftentimes hidden scaffold upon which all of the racial representations in the Porgy and Bess narrative are built.

As a tight-knit community, Catfish Row relies on its own intricate social structure of dynamic individuals and relationships; this intimate portrayal of Black American life is one of the elements that has made Porgy and Bess compelling to many viewers. Nevertheless, whiteness occupies a position of social power in the opera’s world, reflecting the reality of both the Heywards’ Charleston and the Gershwins’ New York City. The police operate with prejudice and impunity, and the Detective in particular comes across as no less malevolent than the opera’s central villains, Crown and Sporting Life, if not more so.22 Their actions evoke the oppressive, often violent conditions that Black Americans faced in the Jim Crow era. In marked contrast, the characters of Archdale and the Coroner betray subtler gradations of white supremacy. As bell hooks argues, white supremacy encompasses more than just overt racism; it also characterizes the acts of liberally minded white people who “cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression” they claim to oppose.23 The social construction of whiteness in the Porgy narrative reflects these gradations, from deliberate racist behavior on the part of the Detective to unconscious and naive articulations of white social power by Archdale and the Coroner.

Ideas about Southern race relations in Porgy and Bess’s literary sources provide our initial insights into the work that whiteness does in the opera. Many of DuBose Heyward’s writings of the 1920s—including his novel Porgy (1925), which inspired Gershwin’s collaboration—demonstrate a desire for increased awareness of Black experiences, but also reveal characteristic racial thinking about the dynamics between the Black and white worlds of the Jim Crow South.24 In his introductory essay to the 1927 play adaptation, for example, Heyward describes Black life in Charleston as a world that “was going on within our own, yet was apart from it,” suggesting something insulated from white experience, a space into which the play and novel claimed to offer white audiences a window.25 It becomes clear, as historian Ellen Noonan relates, that Heyward’s “identity and experiences as a white Charlestonian deeply shaped” his knowledge of the city’s Black population.26 At that time, this population consisted primarily of Gullah Geechee people, a group of African Americans who inhabit the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, and who have a distinctive culture incorporating many West African traditions and a unique creole language.27 Both the Gullah language and Gullah cultural practices are critical to understanding Heyward’s representations of Blackness in Porgy.

Just as the Ibibio-Efik word from which the Gullah “buckra” derives translates as “he who surrounds and governs,” so Heyward depicts white society as something that surrounds and frequently impacts the lives of the people of Catfish Row. Heyward inherited a fascination with Gullah culture from his folklorist mother, Jane, and his own experiences of working in Gullah communities as a young man seem to have led him to portray Catfish Row as a private space, with whiteness as a looming, potentially threatening presence that intrudes from the outside.28 This comes across most tellingly in the novel’s description of the lawyer Archdale entering the community to help secure the release of a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned:

[T]he court had been full of the many-colored sounds that accompany evening life. Now, gradually the noise shrunk, seeming to withdraw into itself. All knew what it meant. A white man had entered. The protective curtain of silence which the negro draws about his life when the Caucasian intrudes hung almost tangibly in the air. No one appeared to notice the visitor. Each was busily preoccupied with his task. Yet the newcomer made no move that was not noted by fifty pairs of inscrutable eyes.

The man wore a soft hat drawn well down over his face. He was slender and tall, and walked with his body carried slightly forward, like one who is used to meeting and overcoming difficulties. A young woman passed him. He reached out and touched her on the arm. She stopped, and turned immediately toward him, her eyes lowered, her manner submissive, but utterly negative.

“I am looking for a man by the name of Porgy,” he said in a clear pleasant voice. “Can you direct me to his room?”

“Porgy?” she repeated slowly, as though trying to remember. Then she called aloud: “Anybody hyuh know a man by de name ob Porgy?”29

The description of Archdale as someone used to “overcoming difficulties” also signifies authoritative power, while his outwardly benevolent actions telegraph a sympathetic side of whiteness that appears to contrast with the racism of the police depicted elsewhere in the novel.

This passage illustrates critical ways in which the novel—and, as we will see, the theatrical adaptation and the opera—engages whiteness as a means of constructing Black difference. This is most evident in Heyward’s use of language. Note how the omnipotent narrator’s voice and that of Archdale are both written in prose that might appear to some to lack a distinctive accent or dialect, while the Black woman’s voice is represented in Heyward’s imagined rendering of the Gullah creole language.30 By voicing the white characters and narrator in what linguists call “General (or Standard) English,” and distinguishing Black speech as distinct from it, Heyward silently signifies his own whiteness as a dominant perspective based on white notions of literacy.31 Heyward’s whiteness thus becomes transparent, occupying an “unmarked” category of perception that illuminates a view of Blackness through linguistic difference.32

The portions of Heyward’s novel that involve law enforcement further emphasize the idea of white authority as a governing force in Charleston. The Detective and his officers repeatedly antagonize the people of Catfish Row, further substantiating the community’s wariness of white outsiders as potential threats.33 The Detective’s racial biases are particularly palpable. Arriving in Catfish Row to investigate Crown’s murder, he tells the Coroner, “That place is alive with crooks. I’d like to get something on it that would justify closing it up as a public nuisance, and throwing the whole lot of ’em out in the street. One murder and a happy-dust riot already this summer; and here we are again.”34 Beyond painting the Detective’s antagonism, this passage speaks to the ways in which Black Americans were criminalized by white police during Jim Crow. We can also glean something crucial about the Black stereotypes for which the story has often been criticized35—namely, that the violence, drug use, and poverty that the Detective describes and the plot depicts must be understood as stemming from racist policies enacted to maintain the US racial regime.

The Black/white racial formations laid out in the novel carry into Dorothy Heyward’s theatrical adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 1927 to critical acclaim and would serve as a structural model for the opera’s libretto.36 As in the novel, the play articulates racial difference through language, with the white dialogue and stage directions written in General English and the Black lines in an imagined dialect distortedly rendered from Gullah.37 The play also introduces a dramaturgy of whiteness that emphasizes its relational position to the Black community through dramatic contrast—with a specifically musical component. We find a stark example in act 1, scene 2, when the police interrupt the community’s singing of the spiritual “Death Ain’t You Got No Shame” during their wake for the man whom Crown murders in the opening scene: “The door is burst suddenly open and the Detective enters. Two Policemen wait in the doorway. The spiritual ceases abruptly. All the Negroes’ eyes are riveted on the White man and filled with fear. He strides over to the corpse, looks down at it.”38 Here, the appearance of a white character triggers an abrupt end to Black singing; this has significance for the Heywards’ construction of Blackness.39 Both the play and the novel employ music as a means of conveying Black folk authenticity, making extended use of existing spirituals and other folksongs. The effect of a white person silencing Black musical expression helps to fabricate that authenticity through the accentuation of sonic difference, delineating whiteness in the absence that follows. In this sharp cut between singing and silence, the play establishes its racial dichotomy.

If depictions of whiteness in the source materials for Porgy and Bess became a means of accentuating Black difference, the representations of Blackness also served to articulate postbellum white identity, Catfish Row itself being the product of the Heywards’ imaginations.40 Likewise, in addition to the Black/white binary, the novel and the play present a dual construction of whiteness by contrasting the overtly racist law enforcement characters with the benevolent Archdale, a smokescreen of ostensible opposites behind which different gradations of Jim Crow white supremacy reside. In adapting the story into an opera, Gershwin would use musical dramaturgy to more powerfully articulate these racialized binaries and affect their meaning in the process.

When Gershwin began sketching Porgy and Bess in early 1934, he was familiar with the depictions of Southern race relations in both the novel and the play, and in two trips to Charleston he experienced the Jim Crow South firsthand. Yet he also brought his own ideas about race to the project and, in adapting the story to the operatic medium, introduced a new strategy for racial representation. Gershwin approached the Black/white exchanges in the opera by employing a distinctive musical mechanism, presenting the white characters’ lines as unaccompanied speech, notated with “x” note heads and rhythmic durations, while setting the Black characters’ responses as recitative-like phrases supported by orchestral accompaniment (see figure 1).41 The result is a stark representation of what W. E. B. Du Bois termed the “color line” etched into the score itself. Du Bois’s influential concept, adapted from Frederick Douglas and introduced in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903), theorized the visual markers of racial difference as fundamental to twentieth-century social inequality—a restrictive, transparent divide constructed and maintained by whites. Alongside the visual politics of race, recent scholarship has positioned the racializing capabilities of sound as equally potent. Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s notion of the “sonic color line,” which expands the divide from seeing to listening, is particularly applicable to Gershwin’s sung/spoken approach.42 With this concept in mind, how can we parse out the role of music (and its absence) in the formation of an operatic color line?

Figure 1

A passage from Gershwin’s short score manuscript showing the speech notation used for white characters. Porgy and Bess, holograph piano-vocal score, act 1, scene 2, R180.2–4. George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Library of Congress. Used by permission.

PORGY AND BESS

Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin

© 1935 (Renewed) NOKAWI MUSIC, FRANKIE G. SONGS, DUBOSE AND DOROTHY HEYWARD MEMORIAL FUND PUBLISHING and IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC

All Rights for NOKAWI MUSIC Administered in the U.S. by STEVE PETER MUSIC

All Rights for FRANKIE G. SONGS and DUBOSE AND DOROTHY HEYWARD MEMORIAL FUND PUBLISHING Administered by DOWNTOWN DLJ SONGS

All Rights for IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC Administered by WC MUSIC CORP.

All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard LLC

PORGY AND BESS (Excerpts)

Music and Lyrics by GEORGE GERSHWIN, DUBOSE and DOROTHY HEYWARD and IRA GERSHWIN

© 1935 (Renewed) IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC, DUBOSE AND DOROTHY HEYWARD MEMORIAL FUND and GEORGE GERSHWIN MUSIC

All Rights on behalf of IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC Administered by WC MUSIC CORP.

All Rights Reserved

Used by Permission of ALFRED MUSIC

Figure 1

A passage from Gershwin’s short score manuscript showing the speech notation used for white characters. Porgy and Bess, holograph piano-vocal score, act 1, scene 2, R180.2–4. George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Library of Congress. Used by permission.

PORGY AND BESS

Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin

© 1935 (Renewed) NOKAWI MUSIC, FRANKIE G. SONGS, DUBOSE AND DOROTHY HEYWARD MEMORIAL FUND PUBLISHING and IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC

All Rights for NOKAWI MUSIC Administered in the U.S. by STEVE PETER MUSIC

All Rights for FRANKIE G. SONGS and DUBOSE AND DOROTHY HEYWARD MEMORIAL FUND PUBLISHING Administered by DOWNTOWN DLJ SONGS

All Rights for IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC Administered by WC MUSIC CORP.

All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard LLC

PORGY AND BESS (Excerpts)

Music and Lyrics by GEORGE GERSHWIN, DUBOSE and DOROTHY HEYWARD and IRA GERSHWIN

© 1935 (Renewed) IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC, DUBOSE AND DOROTHY HEYWARD MEMORIAL FUND and GEORGE GERSHWIN MUSIC

All Rights on behalf of IRA GERSHWIN MUSIC Administered by WC MUSIC CORP.

All Rights Reserved

Used by Permission of ALFRED MUSIC

Close modal

An appropriate starting place is the origin of the sung/spoken effect. The Heywards’ narrative descriptions of the rift between the Black community and white outsiders, particularly in the play, would suggest that the idea of delineating between spoken and sung text-setting in the opera came from DuBose.43 But correspondence between the librettist and the composer indicates otherwise. In late 1933, together with two copies of the opening scene, Heyward sent Gershwin a letter describing his thoughts for the libretto’s musical setting. “I have been thinking a lot about this job,” wrote Heyward, “and have a pretty definite feeling about the treatment which I submit for your consideration. I feel more and more that all the dialog should be spoken.”44 Envisioning something akin to singspiel and opéra-comique, Heyward felt that Gershwin’s music could continue underneath spoken dialogue for all the characters, thus creating a swift dramatic flow. Gershwin instead elected to use operatic recitatives for the Black roles for the bulk of the dialogue with only occasional spoken lines, resulting in one of the few disagreements between the two collaborators on the opera’s composition.45 But he had other ideas for the white roles.

In the summer of 1934, Gershwin took a five-week trip to Folly Island off the coast of Charleston to explore the setting of Porgy and Bess and experience something of Gullah and African American culture as he sketched act 1.46 Press releases from early July about his work on the opera reveal that he had by this time decided that the white characters would not sing. These sources discuss the treatment of race relations in the opera, quoting Gershwin’s own ideas about the sung/spoken divide. Talking to a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, as the paper reported on July 8, Gershwin gave a candid description of his plans:

I believe it will be something that has never been done before. … I am trying to get a sensational dramatic effect. I hope to accomplish this in part by having the few Whites in the production speak their lines while the Negroes, in answering, will sing. With colored people a song expresses an outlet for joy and valve for sorrow. White people are more civilized; they are also more unemotional, drab and dull.47

Another release, of July 1, which later ran in numerous papers, contains further insights into Gershwin’s thoughts on racial difference. Also noteworthy is the reporter’s emphasis on the centrality of Black/white relations to the opera, an element that later reviewers and commentators largely ignored:

The work is to be an interpretation of life in Charleston’s “Catfish Row,” an impressionistic dissertation on the philosophy of the life of colored people and relationship between the black and the White man. “The Whites will speak their lines,” Gershwin said, “but the colored people will sing throughout. I hope the audience will get the idea. With colored people, there is always a song. They find something to sing about.”48

Gershwin’s comments here provide telling details about the way he composed the opera’s racial encounters. On one level, the phrases quoted in the two releases—“outlet for joy” and “valve for sorrow” from July 8, and “[t]hey find something to sing about” from July 1—can simply seem like stereotypes. On another level, they may also suggest some awareness of the ways in which Black musical practices were intertwined with the social experience of being Black in the United States.49 Indeed, Gershwin’s own debt to Black musical cultures has been well documented. Richard Crawford describes how Gershwin’s admiration and respect for Black musicians and Black music making influenced his compositional voice and informed his distinctive interpretation of folk, jazz, and blues traditions in Porgy and Bess.50 But while advocates for the opera remind us to account for Gershwin’s own close identification with Black music, the statements quoted above also betray essentialist thinking along racial lines, casting an ideological shadow over his “sensational dramatic effect.” Contrasting Black musical expressivity with white emotional blandness, he conceives of a distinct Black/white binary opposition. His claim in the Herald Tribune piece that “whites are more civilized” is particularly disturbing and somewhat contradictory given the patently uncivilized brutality of the white police in Porgy and Bess. Likewise, Gershwin’s allusion to supposed inherent or natural Black musicality echoes a long-entrenched colonial discourse dating back to eighteenth-century slavery.51

To mark racial difference by this musical/nonmusical divide appears to essentialize Blackness (and whiteness) and epitomize the sonic color line. But while Gershwin’s operatics of race might construct a rigid binary, they can also be understood as complicating the authority of whiteness in the plot and challenging notions of Black musical essentialism. In the only extended scholarly discussion of the sung/spoken effect, Larry Starr proposes that “[t]he concept of the exotic ‘Other’ defined the entire Catfish Row community in Gershwin’s source material, but in Porgy and Bess he turned the concept on its head to render the white characters as the ‘Others.’”52 Although I would dispute that the effect constitutes a total reversal of othering, we might consider that in the specific apparatus of opera, singing constitutes the dominant mode of expression. Gershwin’s musical dramaturgy marks the white characters who cannot sing as different from everyone else on stage. The very ontology of opera comes into play against them, making them alien and strange in a way not possible in the written and spoken exchanges of the novel and the play. The power of the sonic color line lies in its ability to designate otherness through what Stoever calls “the listening ear,” which produces knowledge about difference through the sound of voices and words.53 Heard through an operatic ear, however, the singing voice carries powerful agency as opera’s primary mode of sounding, its marker of belonging. Although the opera sonically racializes Blackness in other ways,54 the fact that Black voices in Porgy and Bess possess such agency over white voices presents an idiosyncratic challenge to the power dynamics of the sonic color line. Yet this challenge is effective in performance only if productions adhere to the sung/spoken divide of the original score, which, as my analysis of performance history will show, has not always been the case.

Many commentators note that Porgy and Bess is built on the premise of making a specific understanding of Blackness audible and visible.55 The role of whiteness in the opera’s racial politics can likewise be understood in terms of audibility and visibility. This happens in several significant ways during the three Black/white exchanges, but also importantly in references to white society—specifically the institutions of law, law enforcement, and medicine—found elsewhere throughout the opera’s three acts when white characters are not present. Table 1 lists the numerous places in the score where references to whiteness appear in lines sung or spoken by Black characters.56 In these lines, we find that whiteness is structural to the narrative, with the constant threat of police presence, the dangers of white-run healthcare, and the weight of the legal system coming into play in representing Black American experience.

Table 1

References to and exchanges involving white society in the libretto of Porgy and Bess

act, scenemeasure no.character and text reference
1, 1 R71.7–9 Porgy: “I got a pocket full of the Buckra money.” 
1, 1 R141.3–5 Bess: “You done kill Robbins an’ the police will be comin’.” 
1, 1 R147.4–6 Sporting Life: “Well, the cops ain’t goin’ find me here for no woman.” 
1, 2 R180–R187 Detective: exchange with Serena, Peter, and Porgy 
1, 2 R202.4–6 Jake: “He [Robbins] got to be buried tomorrow or the board of health will take him and give him to the medical students.” 
2, 1 R61.6–7 Scipio: “Dey’s a Buckra comin’.” 
2, 1 R63–R72 Archdale: exchange with Porgy 
2, 3 R179.1–7 Peter: “De white folks put me in an’ de white folks take me out, an’ I ain’ know yet what I done, what I done, done, done.” 
2, 3 R184.2–3 Peter: “I advise you to send her [Bess] to de white folks hospital.”
Porgy: “Oh, Gawd, don’ let ’em take Bess to the hospital!” 
2, 4 R273.1–3 Crown: “Daddy Peter, here’s yo’ chance. De Jim crow’s leavin’ an’ you don’ need no ticket [a reference to segregated train cars].” 
3, 1 R15.4 Sporting Life: “den the cops comes in an’ takes de leavin’s.” 
3, 2 R45–R68 Detective and Coroner: exchange with Serena, Bess, and Porgy 
3, 2 R58.3–6 Porgy: “I got to go an’ look at Crown’s face with all dem white folks lookin’ at me?” 
3, 2 R64.3–5 Sporting Life: “That’s one way the cops got of tellin’ who killed him [Crown].” 
3, 2 R70.1–4 Sporting Life: “Sister, that Porgy [original text: “N***”] ain’ goin’ be no witness now. They goin’ lock him up in jail.” 
3, 3 R131.1–2 Porgy: “Dem white folks sure ain’ put nuthin’ over on this baby [original text: “N***”].” 
3, 3 R147.4–8 Porgy: “What kind of a welcome is dis for a man what’s just been in jail for contemp’ of court?” 
act, scenemeasure no.character and text reference
1, 1 R71.7–9 Porgy: “I got a pocket full of the Buckra money.” 
1, 1 R141.3–5 Bess: “You done kill Robbins an’ the police will be comin’.” 
1, 1 R147.4–6 Sporting Life: “Well, the cops ain’t goin’ find me here for no woman.” 
1, 2 R180–R187 Detective: exchange with Serena, Peter, and Porgy 
1, 2 R202.4–6 Jake: “He [Robbins] got to be buried tomorrow or the board of health will take him and give him to the medical students.” 
2, 1 R61.6–7 Scipio: “Dey’s a Buckra comin’.” 
2, 1 R63–R72 Archdale: exchange with Porgy 
2, 3 R179.1–7 Peter: “De white folks put me in an’ de white folks take me out, an’ I ain’ know yet what I done, what I done, done, done.” 
2, 3 R184.2–3 Peter: “I advise you to send her [Bess] to de white folks hospital.”
Porgy: “Oh, Gawd, don’ let ’em take Bess to the hospital!” 
2, 4 R273.1–3 Crown: “Daddy Peter, here’s yo’ chance. De Jim crow’s leavin’ an’ you don’ need no ticket [a reference to segregated train cars].” 
3, 1 R15.4 Sporting Life: “den the cops comes in an’ takes de leavin’s.” 
3, 2 R45–R68 Detective and Coroner: exchange with Serena, Bess, and Porgy 
3, 2 R58.3–6 Porgy: “I got to go an’ look at Crown’s face with all dem white folks lookin’ at me?” 
3, 2 R64.3–5 Sporting Life: “That’s one way the cops got of tellin’ who killed him [Crown].” 
3, 2 R70.1–4 Sporting Life: “Sister, that Porgy [original text: “N***”] ain’ goin’ be no witness now. They goin’ lock him up in jail.” 
3, 3 R131.1–2 Porgy: “Dem white folks sure ain’ put nuthin’ over on this baby [original text: “N***”].” 
3, 3 R147.4–8 Porgy: “What kind of a welcome is dis for a man what’s just been in jail for contemp’ of court?” 

The three Black/white exchanges are connected thematically in the score, which invites reading them as an interrelated group and analyzing their meanings in a broader context. One of these connections gives musical shape to the complex Black/white social relations of the Jim Crow South. Each time whites enter Catfish Row, their initial utterance triggers a specific musical reaction by a Black character, the same in all three scenes—a sung response that we can read as being informed and conditioned by the brutality and subjection of the Jim Crow era. Example 1 shows the initial exchange of each scene: (a) between the Detective and Serena, (b) between Archdale and the young boy Scipio, and (c) between the Detective and Serena’s friend Annie.57 When Serena, Scipio, and Annie reply to the first white utterance, they all sing the same motive, the descending major third D–B♭.

Example 1

Opening measures of the three Black/white exchanges, showing the recurring motive D–B♭ of the Black response to a white character: (a) act 1, scene 2, R180.1–2 (b) act 2, scene 1, R64.5–6 (c) act 3, scene 2, R46.1–2

Example 1

Opening measures of the three Black/white exchanges, showing the recurring motive D–B♭ of the Black response to a white character: (a) act 1, scene 2, R180.1–2 (b) act 2, scene 1, R64.5–6 (c) act 3, scene 2, R46.1–2

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Serena’s, Scipio’s, and Annie’s nearly identical musical phrases resemble a kind of linguistic code specific to Black characters encountering white society and the threats it represents.58 Gershwin’s decision to give them the same coded response perhaps aligns with the “protective curtain” described in the novel, which the Catfish Row residents adopt in the presence of white folks. Also critical here are the sociolinguistic power dynamics of these exchanges. Mirroring the repressive social rules of Jim Crow, the Black characters only sing in response to a direct question from or statement by a white character.59 That they respond only when spoken to represents a past in which failure to do so could result in negative, often violent consequences that were justified in the eyes of the law.60 When understood in this sociohistorical context, the D–B♭ motive is seen to be one way in which whiteness becomes visible and audible in the music Gershwin assigns to Catfish Row residents.

The notion of invisibility can also be seen as relevant to Gershwin’s sung/spoken device for marking racial difference. A critical concept in whiteness studies, invisibility refers to the way whiteness makes itself transparent in relation to other racial categories and confers the privilege to define racial difference as anything other than white.61 Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed describes this process of reification as “a category of experience that disappears as a category through experience”—the means by which whiteness becomes “worldly” while simultaneously forcing the embodiment of race onto Others.62 Gershwin’s construction of whiteness as nonmusical in Porgy and Bess might appear to serve as the unseen, neutral backdrop against which the Black world is musically defined. In the blank staves beneath the white characters’ lines in the score, devoid of accompaniment, we could pinpoint a kind of invisibility: a musical lack (see example 1). But on the contrary, by virtue of the notes that surround the empty space and form the accompaniment, the musical notation does not so much conceal white difference as call attention to it. Musical absence makes whiteness visible. And when realized in performance, audible.

How, then, does Porgy and Bess depict the white world’s impact on Black lives in the three exchanges that unfold from the initial interactions considered above? In what other ways does white supremacy become visible and audible, and how do the Black characters resist, subvert, and challenge it through musical means? Each scene, in its full, published form, has something distinct and important to say. Reading them in order underscores their structural role in the opera, ultimately pointing toward the political stakes of its performance. Moving now through the Black/white exchanges in the three acts, I trace a narrative of police brutality, white paternalism, and Black resistance embedded in the work’s musical dramaturgy.

The interplay of violence, oppression, and resistance first becomes apparent in act 1, scene 2 (at R180–R187), as the community holds a wake for Robbins, whose murder by Crown at the climax of the previous scene sets much of the plot in motion. Scene 2 establishes the foundation of Gershwin’s sonic color line, with the first vocalization by white characters and the expression of the sung/spoken divide between Black and white voices. When the Detective suddenly appears in the widowed Serena’s room, his intrusion shocks the community, whose members have been singing a spiritual-inspired call-and-response number (“Overflow”) in honor of Robbins. DuBose Heyward’s draft libretto, from which Gershwin created the short score, contains a description of this entrance: “As the White man enters the swaying stops abruptly with each person holding the pose in which he found him. Up to this point the whole scene has been carried forward on a sustained rhythm, which has now been snapped short by the entrance of the White man. As he advances into the room all of the occupants, with eyes fixed on him, sway in unison away from him.”63 To realize Heyward’s description of the mourners’ terror at being caught off guard by the police, Gershwin’s orchestration punctuates the Detective’s entrance with a sharp, dissonant chord (R179.9), which fractures fervent singing into anxious silence.64 Intruding on a moment of community healing, the Detective’s arrival itself becomes a violent act, a musical articulation of the Jim Crow racial regime inflicted through the stifling of singing voices.

In response to Crown’s stabbing of Robbins, which frames intercommunity violence and drug use as commonplace among poor Black people, the Detective’s arrival presents white law enforcement as an inevitable and equally destructive outcome of that violence. Structural elements of Gershwin’s score suggest that these social constructions of Black struggle and white society have distinctive musical poetics that shape broad swaths of the opera. One significant example emerges in the form of a harmonically unstable chord progression, first appearing in the choral dirge for Robbins, “Gone, Gone, Gone” (see example 2), returning several times in the scene, and later recurring in subsequent interactions between Black and white characters in acts 2 and 3. This distinctive structure consists of a nondiatonic cycle of eight chords alternating between root-position minor triads and (0248) tetrachords on the same pitch class (the latter resembling augmented triads with a flatted seventh in the bass).65 That Gershwin deploys this striking progression throughout a scene focusing on the community’s grief over violence is noteworthy, for it builds a connection between this music and profoundly negative circumstances.66 Given its discordant voice-leading, cyclical construction, and recurrence throughout the opera, we can read in the progression a correspondence with the depiction of ongoing cycles of struggle and hardship experienced by the people of Catfish Row.67

Example 2

Cyclic harmonic progression deployed in “Gone, Gone, Gone,” act 1, scene 2, R164.2–R165.1

Example 2

Cyclic harmonic progression deployed in “Gone, Gone, Gone,” act 1, scene 2, R164.2–R165.1

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Dramaturgically—and musically, it seems—the white characters are implicated in the cyclical struggles of Catfish Row. Gershwin uses the same distinctive progression, shifted a half step lower, as the structural basis for all three exchanges with white characters.68 While we might otherwise consider this as a case of recycling a useful compositional structure, its recurrence and harmonic tension can also be understood in light of the opera’s social dynamics. In the Detective section in scene 2, for example, we first encounter Gershwin’s setting of the jarring contrast between unaccompanied spoken dialogue and sung musical phrases, articulating the sonic color line. Add to this the fraught, dissonant voice leading of the “Gone” cyclic progression that unfolds beneath, its outer voices moving in opposite directions to produce an unsettled, clashing effect (see score extract (a) in example 3). Harmonically, the structure has no resolution; if it were to continue indefinitely, the distance between the outer voices would forever increase (see voice leading reduction (b) in example 3). The harmonic architecture of the Black/white exchanges subtly illuminates the idea of a perpetual racial divide.

Example 3

Transposed “Gone, Gone, Gone” progression in the first Detective exchange, act 1, scene 2: (a) first statement of the chord cycle, R180–R181.2 (b) voice leading reduction (ties indicate notes held across multiple chords in the score)

Example 3

Transposed “Gone, Gone, Gone” progression in the first Detective exchange, act 1, scene 2: (a) first statement of the chord cycle, R180–R181.2 (b) voice leading reduction (ties indicate notes held across multiple chords in the score)

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In addition to the unsettled musical accompaniment, the Detective’s language and Gershwin’s setting of it also accentuate the violence of white supremacy. Bluntly addressing Serena, the Detective informs her that her husband’s body must be buried the next day. To fully understand the violence of what follows, it is necessary to exhume a long-buried skeleton: the racist slurs that populate Heyward’s first-draft libretto, Gershwin’s holograph piano-vocal score, and the first version of the published piano-vocal score of Porgy and Bess.69 In these sources, the Detective emphasizes his disdainful indifference toward Black bodies in his first line, “Um! A saucer-buried n***, I see. You’re his widow?”70 Approximating Southern speech patterns—and emphasizing linguistic violence—Gershwin places an accent on the first syllable of the racial slur. Serena’s reply of “Yes, suh” is characteristic of the Jim Crow language of Black subjugation. This kind of language, the words “suh” and “boss,” spoken by the Black characters throughout each scene, reflects the postbellum “lessons of conduct” that were imposed on Black free persons as a means of refiguring “the deference and servility of the social relations of slavery.”71

As the exchange progresses, the Detective’s oppressive behavior becomes even more violent. Observing the people in the room, he deliberately selects a frail elderly man, Peter, and accuses him of committing the murder. Drawing his pistol in intimidation, the Detective frightens Peter into admitting that he witnessed the crime. Scanning for a second witness, he fixates on Porgy, perhaps because of Porgy’s disability. Both the stage directions and Gershwin’s setting of the dialogue in this section further highlight white supremacy (see example 4). Seeking to intimidate Porgy, the Detective invokes the institutional authority of law. Gershwin’s placement of accents over the words “law” and “you” adds symbolic weight to “putting the law” onto Porgy. Likewise, the line that Ira Gershwin eventually altered to “Look at me, you damn dummy!” is a far more vicious act of linguistic violence in its original form: “Look at me, you damn n***!”72 In Gershwin’s holograph short score, stabbing accents placed over the words “Look,” “damn,” and the racial slur stress the power of this language.73 Meanwhile, the stage directions—“Porgy lowers eyes. Does not speak” and “Porgy sits silent”—convey his adherence to the demeaning rules of Jim Crow communication: avoiding eye contact and responding only when the Detective commands him at gunpoint.74

Example 4

The Detective’s intimidation, act 1, scene 2, R182.3–4

Example 4

The Detective’s intimidation, act 1, scene 2, R182.3–4

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What follows next, however—Porgy’s sung response—constitutes a powerful act of resistance fortified by musical nuance. Porgy’s only tactic for withstanding the Detective’s assault, as the stage direction indicates, is to “feign ignorance” by claiming that he was asleep inside his room during the murder. In his response, “I don’t know nuttin’ ’bout it, boss,” Gershwin employs a refiguration of the memorable leitmotif for Porgy that is found throughout the opera in many guises, most often as a signifier of his strength of character (see example 5). The musical accompaniment likewise plays a key role in Porgy’s resistance by articulating the first three notes of the “Porgy” motive in the pickup to R183 (see example 4, R182.4), preparing his response and leading into an accented sforzando-piano chord on the downbeat. The harmony under Porgy’s reply, an E7 split third (E-B-G♯-D-G♮), also adds musical weight to his response.75 With major and minor thirds expressed as a clashing diminished octave, this rich voicing emphasizes oppositional tension. Even as Porgy uses the language of Jim Crow subservience, the music he sings becomes a counterlanguage (a means of constructing speaker agency in hidden layers of linguistic meaning) through which he contests racial repression while exercising his own power.76 As a whole, the passage evokes a musical “infrapolitics,” a term denoting covert acts of political dissent, which historian Robin D. G. Kelley applies to the subtle gestures of resistance that Black Americans enact in everyday life.77

Example 5

Derivation of Porgy’s opposition to the Detective from the opening phrase of his leitmotif: (a) Porgy’s response, act 1, scene 2, R183.1 (b) “Porgy” leitmotif

Example 5

Derivation of Porgy’s opposition to the Detective from the opening phrase of his leitmotif: (a) Porgy’s response, act 1, scene 2, R183.1 (b) “Porgy” leitmotif

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Foiled by Porgy, the Detective leaves with Peter in custody. As he goes, he brusquely warns Serena that if she does not bury Robbins’s body by the next day the Board of Health will seize it for dissection by medical students. Here is another important historical detail that should not be overlooked. This practice of seizing bodies for dissection in Southern medical schools was a real, ongoing source of terror for Black Americans throughout the country’s history. As historian Harriet A. Washington has detailed, the involuntary use of Black bodies both living and dead for medical experimentation and pedagogy, and their deliberate mistreatment at white hospitals, date back to the eighteenth century at least, and continued well into the twentieth.78 Thus, when the Detective mentions the Board of Health—a white institution that represents gruesome consequences for the community—the Black characters become noticeably shaken. The disturbing episode provides dramatic momentum leading into Serena’s heartrending lament “My Man’s Gone Now.”

Despite Porgy’s important moment of contesting white institutional power, this first encounter demonstrates that Catfish Row exists within a wider world of oppression in which law enforcement operates with impunity. The Detective is established as an openly virulent racist who uses linguistic violence, threatens physical violence, callously addresses a grieving woman, and ultimately jails an innocent man. Likewise, his two choices for witnesses—Peter for his age and Porgy for his disability—betray the intersectional nature of his discrimination. And although the character’s antagonism could seem exaggerated, his actions are painfully real in the context of the wider mistreatment of Black Americans by US law enforcement, both in the opera’s time and in our own. That he places the “locus of culpability” squarely on Peter and imprisons the man indefinitely without cause evinces the legacy of what Saidiya Hartman calls “the violence of the law.”79 Peter’s imprisonment thus reflects the greater endemic legal discrimination that Black Americans faced under Jim Crow. As law scholar Michelle Alexander writes of those incarcerated during the period, “Convicts had no meaningful legal rights at this time and no effective redress. They were understood, quite literally, to be slaves of the state.”80 After Jim Crow, such conditions transformed in the later twentieth century into new kinds of legalized discrimination: racial profiling, biased drug-enforcement policies, and a structure of mass incarceration designed to maintain the US racial regime.81 Though written over eighty-five years ago, the depiction of Black men criminalized without cause by white police thus comments on the present as much as it reflects the past.

In the opening scene of act 2, the overt acts of police brutality seen and heard in act 1 lead to a more insidious form of racial violence. The arrival of a sympathetic white character, the aristocratic lawyer Alan Archdale, reveals a paternalist construction that represents key thinking of the Jim Crow era. Archdale’s language, measured and respectful, reflects this sympathy: he uses no racial slurs in the original novel, play, or libretto, in contrast to the Detective and the Coroner. But underneath Archdale’s kind words and charitable actions lies a subtler kind of white supremacy, a kind that is easily misrecognized. In this regard, Archdale aligns with two broader literary tropes of white paternalism, which David Ikard calls the “lovable racist” and the “white messiah.” The first represents a class of figures who escape scrutiny by being “validated … morally, ethically, or socially as ‘good people’ by the very group that they exploit and/or discriminate against.”82 The second type perpetuates a “myth of white innocence” by opposing the actions of other, overtly racist whites—which is exactly what Archdale does in coming to the aid of Catfish Row.83 Despite (or perhaps because of) these complexities, the Archdale scene is among the most frequently cut sections in productions of the opera. Yet analysis of this sequence’s underlying musical structure allows us to separate out the character’s different layers, for the scene plays out over the same cyclic chord progression as the earlier exchange with law enforcement. Laden with the negative associations established in act 1, scene 2, described above, this destabilizing harmonic structure signals the darker subtext of Archdale’s benevolence.

When Archdale comes to Catfish Row in search of Porgy partway through act 2, scene 1 (R63–R72), his entrance is met with scrutiny and caution. In another example of the “protective curtain,” the Black characters initially evade his inquiries about Porgy in order to avoid possible conflict (see example 6). Scipio’s first musical response, in which he denies knowing Porgy (R64.6: the D–B♭ motive), is identical to Serena’s earlier reply to the Detective. Likewise, when Archdale addresses Clara and she pretends not to know Porgy, she sings a similar figure, this time on G and E♭ (R65.1). In deflecting Archdale’s questions by feigning ignorance, both Scipio and Clara employ a language of indirectness specific to the opera’s white encounters. More broadly, this strategy can be understood as a kind of rehearsed performance, part of what historian Stephen Berrey terms the “Jim Crow routine,” referring to the “set of daily practices that guided the interactions between blacks and whites” in the segregated South.84

Example 6

The community’s interaction with Archdale, act 2, scene 1, R64.5–R65.4

Example 6

The community’s interaction with Archdale, act 2, scene 1, R64.5–R65.4

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Archdale seeks to lower the residents’ defenses by telling them he is a friend of Porgy and has good news. As in act 1, Gershwin’s articulations help clarify meaning in white speech: accents placed over the words “friend,” “good,” and the first syllable of Archdale’s name stress his effort to convince the community of his desire to help. Nonetheless, the residents remain wary of him, as if conditioned to know that kind words may not reveal his true intentions. The tension relaxes only after Serena recognizes Archdale and communicates through a linguistic code that he is not a threat, singing, “Go ’long and wake Porgy. Can’t you tell folks [Heyward’s emphasis] when you see ’em?”85 With hidden meaning understood by the community, the word “folks” conveys that the outsider is nonthreatening.

Serena’s coded declaration prompts a change among the residents, whose collective community response shifts from avoidance to compliance, another form of self-protection. They address Archdale as “boss” and refer to him as a “gen’man” as they call for Porgy (R66.1–3), again using the Jim Crow codes of subservience. Archdale then informs Porgy that he will pay Peter’s bond so that Peter may return home. This appears to be an altruistic act on the surface, but Archdale’s reason for wanting to help suddenly raises the specter of slavery. When Porgy asks why he cares about Peter’s welfare, Archdale responds, “His folks used to belong to my fam’ly and I just heard he was in trouble” (R67.3). This passing mention of the fact that Archdale’s family once held Peter’s in legally sanctioned, forced captivity marks the only direct reference to chattel slavery in the opera. The domination inherent in this statement casts a shadow over a scene whose function is to present a contrast to racist law enforcement in acts 1 and 3. Accent placement is again significant in Gershwin’s setting of Archdale’s dialogue. Positioned on both sides of the verb “belong,” accents adorn the possessive pronouns “his” and “my,” intensifying notions of property and ownership.

While Archdale acts out of kindness and a sense of obligation, he does so from a position of substantial privilege afforded by wealth, institutional authority (as a lawyer), and white skin. Through a patriarchal sense of obligation to Peter, whose family was once legally considered property, Archdale represents both the history of slavery and the paternalism that formed a key component of white thinking in the Jim Crow South. To employ legal scholar Cheryl Harris’s concept, he wields his “whiteness as property,” meaning that his race takes on a measurable value and becomes an assumed right in the same regard as his right to own goods or land.86 Harris argues that during the period in which whites had the legal right to possess Black slaves, notions of race and property merged to the extent that a form of property became “contingent on race.”87 What remained after families such as Peter’s were released from bondage was the unconsciously ingrained conviction that whiteness in the United States had material value, borne out through the legal system in myriad ways. Using his financial solvency and institutional influence, Archdale can afford to do what the community cannot: pay the bond of a wrongfully imprisoned man. In the process, he quietly reinforces the twinned inequities of race and class that separate him from the residents of Catfish Row.

Thus, while Archdale’s altruism outwardly appears as a positive counterweight to the Detective’s racism, it contains subtle articulations of power both on the level of the characters and on that of their creators. That an affluent white man’s charity represents the only way Peter can return from jail, and that the community members call that man “boss” and praise his goodwill, reinforces the ideological positions of racial dominance and subservience that had long been entrenched in US thought. In this construction of a progressive whiteness—understood by both the characters and their creators as well-meaning—we find a prime example of Jim Crow paternalism: violence encoded into a charitable act. It speaks of white supremacy as bell hooks conceptualizes it, something easily reproduced by those believing to oppose racism. Yet a key element in the way Gershwin scores the Archdale section makes the character’s hidden violence visible—and audible. The whole passage plays out over the same progression heard in “Gone, Gone, Gone” and in the identical harmonic structure that accompanied the Detective’s overt racial violence in act 1. It is the musical similarity of these exchanges that reveals them to be two sides of the same coin.

In March 1934, during the opera’s early gestation, DuBose Heyward sent Gershwin a draft of act 3 accompanied by a letter. Heyward wrote, “Do not be alarmed about any inclination toward too much length. There are places where we can cut in conference without disrupting the story. For instance: the opening episode in act 3, scene 2, with the detective and women. This is swell comedy, and the [play’s] audience loved it, but if necessary it can be moved out entirely, and the detective can go right to Porgy.”88 Although Heyward deemed this exchange and its “swell comedy” expendable, Gershwin elected to include it. In doing so, he composed one of the most compelling moments in the opera’s portrayal of race relations—yet also one of the most overlooked and frequently truncated in productions. In act 3, scene 2 (R45–R68), three Black women subvert the Detective’s authority through specifically musical means, thereby destabilizing white supremacy and rejecting racial violence. Though often abbreviated in performance, the complete form of this exchange adds a critical disruption of power to the racial dramaturgy in Porgy and Bess. The Detective’s brutality in act 1, falsely contrasted by the act 2 Archdale scene, is musically resisted in act 3. But differently from act 1, it is not Porgy, a man, who does the resisting. In fact, Porgy falls prey to the white justice system when he is dragged off by police later in the scene. Rather, it is the women who, through singing, evoke bell hooks’s concept of “talking back,” a critical speech act “that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice.”89

At the opening of the scene, when the Detective returns with the Coroner to investigate Crown’s murder, we see a reprise of the oppression-resistance dynamics of act 1. The Detective first questions Serena in the hope of securing a conviction or at least a witness for the Coroner’s inquest. But Serena, supported by Annie (a minor character) and a third, unnamed Woman, contests his interrogation by claiming she was sick in her room behind a closed window when the murder took place. This portion of the scene takes the form of a comedy routine, in which the Detective becomes increasingly agitated as the trio of women provide the same “rehearsed” answer to each of his questions. The exchange seems to function as a lighthearted prelude to the opera’s pivotal tragic sequence in which the police take Porgy away, leaving Bess vulnerable to Sporting Life’s manipulation. On closer inspection, however, it further illuminates a key facet of the musical dramaturgy first introduced during Porgy’s standoff in act 1: the ability to sing as symbolic resistance to white institutional authority. Moreover, the gender dynamics of the trio’s encounter with the Detective make the passage a doubly powerful moment of resistance to intersectional oppression.90 An image from a rare souvenir program for the opera’s first major revival in the 1940s captures an artful staging of the trio’s subversion of law enforcement, as the Black women stand distinctly positioned above the white men (see figure 2).91

Figure 2

Serena’s trio responds to police questioning in act 3, scene 2. Publicity photograph from a Porgy and Bess souvenir program, 1942. Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts Archive, Library of Congress. Used by permission.

Figure 2

Serena’s trio responds to police questioning in act 3, scene 2. Publicity photograph from a Porgy and Bess souvenir program, 1942. Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts Archive, Library of Congress. Used by permission.

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In a form that is more extended than Porgy’s act 1 exchange, Serena’s questioning demonstrates the community’s power to defy the police through music. Full of wit and sarcasm, Gershwin’s musical setting plays to a sense of subversive opera buffa as the three women repeatedly stonewall the Detective’s questions in a clearly rehearsed chorus of “We ain’ seen nuttin’ boss.” In response to his command “Come on down Serena Robbins and make it damn quick!,” Annie, not Serena, comes to the window (see example 7). Her initial statement outlines the D–B♭ motive heard in previous interactions with white characters, but Gershwin elongates the gesture, emphasizing Annie’s disdainful exclamation of “Huh!” with an accented sforzando-piano in the accompaniment. In place of the cautious initial responses of acts 1 and 2, Annie sings two extended phrases during which she establishes Serena’s alibi for the murder. The recurring D–B♭ gesture—previously set to terse subservient replies—here becomes immediately defiant, while its elongated phrasing corresponds to the increased complexity of the trio’s resistance as their musical lines expand later in the scene.

Example 7

Beginning of trio/Detective exchange, act 3, scene 2, R45–R48.2

Example 7

Beginning of trio/Detective exchange, act 3, scene 2, R45–R48.2

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When the Detective demands to speak with Serena, threatening to arrest her if she refuses to come out, Gershwin maintains the buffa atmosphere by accompanying her melodramatic entrance with an altered statement of her aria “My Man’s Gone Now” (R47.1–4). Reharmonizing the melody in dissonant intervals—parallel diminished octaves and major seconds—the music mimics Serena’s feigned ailment as she sprawls at her windowsill, as though “too ill to hold herself up” (stage direction, R47.1). Recalling that it was partly the Detective’s callous treatment of Serena in act 1 that led to her singing “My Man’s Gone Now,” the aria’s distorted reprise in her resistance to the Detective becomes a subversive symbolic gesture.

As the interrogation proceeds, Serena and the other women oppose the Detective with increasingly elaborate musical phrases, setting the scene apart from the earlier exchanges. They initially respond individually (R48.1–2) but progress to singing as a trio in close triadic harmony. Whereas in the exchanges in acts 1 and 2 the Black characters respond in a style approximating parlando recitative, the trio’s florid melodic passages in stacked parallel motion more starkly emphasize the divide between Black singing and white speech. Further, the trio sequence occurs over the cyclic chord progression found in the earlier exchanges, but here it is triumphantly repurposed by the three women.92

Gershwin continues to build the trio’s musical rejection of white authority, making use of key textual repetitions in the libretto and the distinctive dramaturgy of the sung/spoken dynamic. The three women repeatedly sing Serena’s alibi of being sick in her room for “three days and nights” with the window closed. After their first statement of the alibi, the Coroner steps in, asking if they would swear to their statement. Their affirmative one-measure reply, the first response given in triadic harmony, convinces the Coroner—whom the libretto depicts as more naively benign than the Detective.93 “There you are, an airtight alibi,” he tells the Detective, to the latter’s frustration. The Detective continues to question the women, but the increasing length and intricacy of their musical phrases signals their growing power to confound him. Responding to his next question, when he threatens to put Serena in jail, the trio’s second phrase is again one measure long, but it is quickly followed by a two-measure solo phrase from Annie that is of particular interest (see example 8, R50.3–4). With a defiant laughing gesture, her line “ain’ dat gentleman say we is alabi?” is scathingly satirical. Referring to the Coroner’s words, she switches momentarily to spoken dialogue, seemingly breaking the sonic color line to mock white speech as she bolsters the women’s argument.

Example 8

Conclusion of trio/Detective exchange, act 3, scene 2, R50.3–R52.6

Example 8

Conclusion of trio/Detective exchange, act 3, scene 2, R50.3–R52.6

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Strengthening their response to the Detective’s next question, the three women deliver a third musical statement of the alibi in their increasingly complex and effective defense against police intimidation. This time they extend it to three full measures, with one measure given to each phrase: “We ain’ see nuttin’ boss, we been in dis room three day an’ night An’ de window been closed” (R51.1–3). After one last-ditch question from the Detective, the trio’s fourth and final melodic declaration of the alibi expands to four measures, followed by a two-measure tag from Annie repeating that the window was closed (R52.1–6). Gershwin’s accent placement once again plays a significant role, with one accent emphasizing the word “closed.” After delivering this peremptory line, under which the final two chords of the cyclic progression crash to a halt, the trio slams the window on the Detective’s interrogation for good. Realizing the women have won, he impotently concedes, “Oh hell! You might as well argue with a parrot, but you’ll never break their story,” his admission of their strength a fitting close to this brief yet powerful portrayal of Black resistance.

The comedy of the trio’s obviously rehearsed responses to the Detective’s increasingly agitated questions should not minimize the significance of what takes place here. A white male officer attempts to intimidate and threatens to imprison a woman he deems to be in a weak position. As Kimberlé Crenshaw has shown, Black women throughout history have been and continue to be at increased risk of victimization and violence “by intersecting patterns of racism and sexism.”94 Singing back in opposition, three women’s voices overpower a man who embodies patriarchal white supremacist control. They evoke Saidiya Hartman’s description of a Black woman’s experience in the early twentieth century: “seizing at chance, she eludes the law and transforms the terms of the possible.”95 Furthermore, the women sing over the cyclic progression, but its harmonic tension is repurposed here to stage their opposition in a powerful volte-face. The trio proves that the singing voice in Porgy and Bess is not just a mode of responding to what Joseph Horowitz calls “the antimusic of blunt white speech.”96 Rather, in this often overlooked sequence—which is rarely performed in its entirety—singing becomes a potent means of contesting white supremacy.

The musical construction of the three Black/white exchanges described above reveals substantive connections between the opera’s formal and dramaturgical structure and its complicated sociocultural contexts. Throughout the acts, Gershwin employs different strategies to represent the meanings of whiteness in Catfish Row, the power of Black resistance, and the complexity of Jim Crow race relations. Our perception of the nuances and connections found throughout these racialized encounters depends, however, on experiencing the opera in its complete published form. But like many operas, Porgy and Bess has had a remarkably diverse production history. As a result, critical meanings that emerge from the work’s full state can be obscured by subsequent cuts, as Andrew Davis and Howard Pollack have argued.97 How then are we best to understand the opera’s constructions of Blackness and whiteness—and their relationship to one another—if the work is almost never performed in its entirety? Why have the depictions of white supremacy in an opera about Black experience so often been deemed pliable and expendable? And if performances have continually reconfigured the meanings of these racial encounters throughout the course of the opera’s history, what does it mean to perform them today?

In its 2019–20 season, the Metropolitan Opera mounted a highly anticipated new production of Porgy and Bess—only the second in its history, following Nathaniel Merrill’s 1985 staging.98 Whereas the opera’s complete three-act form comprises over three hours of music and two intermissions—a running time of nearly four and a half hours—the 2019 production condensed things considerably, cutting the overall length to three hours with one intermission. In a press release given before the opening, director James Robinson claimed of the new staging, “It doesn’t feel excessively long. … The original version just really goes on and on and on.”99 Robinson’s opinion of the original length was not new. Since its premiere, Porgy and Bess has been criticized for being overly long, which has led directors and producers to reshape the original structure significantly, often radically, in nearly every production in the opera’s eighty-five-year history. But such alterations have consequences.

Put simply, the work’s structural treatment of whiteness cannot be fully understood without the meanings that are created, shaped, and communicated in performance. Because the Black/white exchanges in the opera are among the sections most frequently altered or cut, their meanings have proved elusive and susceptible to manipulation. The portions of these scenes that have been included in different productions and how they have been performed have drastically affected the depiction of the white world in relation to Catfish Row. To continue untangling race relations in Porgy and Bess, then, the penultimate section of this article examines three key productions from across the opera’s history, each of which illustrates how different staging choices can impact the representation of the Black/white binary that exists in the score. An indispensable piece of the puzzle, these productions have further implications for our understanding of the role of whiteness in the past and present meanings of an opera that has continually proven relevant to US race relations.

The First Production, 1935: Preserving the Status Quo

Like the action of the opera itself, the first production took place at the height of the Jim Crow period. The 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of post-Reconstruction segregation laws, therefore provides an important historical backdrop.100 It is significant that the 1935 production was mounted by the Theatre Guild on Broadway rather than at the racially restricted Metropolitan Opera, which would likely have led to casting white singers in blackface.101 The Theatre Guild accommodated a predominantly Black cast together with five white actors, resulting in an integrated Northern performance of a work depicting the segregated South. Porgy and Bess thus resembles Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical play Show Boat (1927), in that it involved intersecting performances of Blackness and whiteness, what Todd Decker calls “indexes of race.”102 Both set in the Jim Crow period, these two works reproduced the American color line, while at the same time testing its boundaries. Yet even as the first production of Porgy and Bess, with its integrated cast that spotlighted Black performers, might have challenged the dynamics of the color line, the presentation of the Black/white encounters that Broadway audiences actually saw merely articulated its status quo.

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the 1935 production featured a predominantly white production team with the exception of choir director Eva Jessye.103 This dynamic of whiteness on the production side and a primarily Black cast would largely continue throughout the opera’s performance history and should inform our consideration of the way race was presented on stage.104 While the Theatre Guild performances have been well documented, sources remain vague as to how the white actors portrayed their roles. We know that this production used the original language, and thus the Coroner and the Detective (played by George Carlton and Alexander Campbell) were among the performers who uttered the racial slurs that were later expurgated. No performance photographs exist of their scenes, but a previously unpublished publicity still from act 2, taken before the premiere, reveals something striking about the show’s presentation of racial difference. It depicts Archdale (played by George Lessey) on stage during the “Buzzard Song,” the aria for Porgy that follows their exchange and that was soon to be cut (see figure 3). Positioned directly centerstage between Porgy (Todd Duncan) and Bess (Anne Wiggins Brown) and surrounded by the chorus, Archdale stands mouth agape as he follows the community’s gaze off stage. But it is Archdale’s costume that draws the eye in this image. The bright white suit and shoes, accentuated by the photograph’s sepia tones, sharply contrast the other costumes and the set. Whiteness overwhelms the actor’s body, his skin almost inseparable from his clothes. By dressing him in traditional Southern summer wear, the production team seems to have opted to make the character stand out. From this we can observe a visual, material articulation of Archdale’s whiteness: as property that signifies the race-class barrier separating him from the people of Catfish Row. But of Archdale this will be the last we see, for in each of the remaining productions examined, the character was removed entirely.

Figure 3

Archdale and other cast members during the “Buzzard Song” in act 2, scene 1. Cast photograph from the Theatre Guild production of Porgy and Bess, Boston, 1935. Photograph by Richard Tucker. Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts Collection. Used by permission.

Figure 3

Archdale and other cast members during the “Buzzard Song” in act 2, scene 1. Cast photograph from the Theatre Guild production of Porgy and Bess, Boston, 1935. Photograph by Richard Tucker. Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts Collection. Used by permission.

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The Theatre Guild production was first given a trial run in Boston in late September in its complete form, but by the time it opened on Broadway in October, many cuts had been made.105 This truncated version established a practice of trimming the Black/white exchanges that would continue throughout the work’s performance history, and our understanding of the scenes’ racial dynamics depends on what was lost and what was kept. For the Broadway run, the Detective’s failed questioning of Porgy in act 1 was eliminated, while his intimidation and arrest of Peter remained. The Archdale scene in act 2 meanwhile was left mostly intact, maintaining the paternalistic side of the opera’s version of whiteness. The length of the exchange between the three women and the Detective in act 3 was halved, cutting the buildup of elaborate musical phrases that makes the trio’s subversion of white supremacy so effective.106 As a result of these specific cuts, key expressions of Black musical resistance disappeared, tipping an already imbalanced power dynamic further toward the white characters. Simultaneously, the white actors’ presence on stage was reduced, keeping the gaze of a predominantly white New York audience directed toward Blackness. Already somewhat brief to begin with, in this version the exchanges feel especially hurried by comparison with their full form—enough to seem inconsequential beyond their role in plot exposition. They become fleeting, quotidian depictions of specifically Southern racism/paternalism, presented to, and perhaps understood by, Northern audiences as a matter of fact in the South. Most critically, the Black performers had fewer opportunities to bring out moments of resistance and contestation because the cuts had all but erased those sections of the opera. In a work with such fraught racial dynamics, what might seem like practical choices for streamlining material in fact come with powerful stakes.

The Breen/Davis Production, 1952–56: Echoing Minstrelsy

In the same week of 1954 in which the Supreme Court issued the landmark ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a new major production of Porgy and Bess had a thirteen-day engagement in Cleveland, Ohio.107 Another predominantly white creative team, headed by director Robert Breen and producer Blevins Davis, had revived the opera in 1952, using as a model the critically acclaimed revival produced by Cheryl Crawford in the 1940s, which had heavily revamped the original version.108 The widely successful and much-studied Breen/Davis production toured internationally until 1956 and helped launch the careers of such celebrated Black opera stars as Leontyne Price and William Warfield. These international tours saw the work performed as a cultural export financed in part by the US State Department in order to project a positive view of the country to foreign powers, even as domestic race relations grew increasingly fraught and violent amid Black demands for civil rights.109 With its foregrounding of Black theatrical talent on a global stage, and a revised treatment of the Black/white interactions, this production could superficially be viewed as a departure from Jim Crow inequality, just as the Brown ruling departed from Plessy. Yet Harris argues of Brown that it “dismantled an old form of whiteness as property while simultaneously permitting its reemergence in a more subtle form,” and something similar could be said of this heavily revised Porgy and Bess.110

While the Breen/Davis production took a new approach to staging US race relations, it simultaneously found new ways of reifying whiteness. Using the 1940s Crawford staging as a model, Robert Breen took significant liberties with the text and the organization of scenes, making it wildly different from the original. As Crawford had done, he changed many recitative sections to spoken dialogue without musical accompaniment, thus eliminating the nuanced sung/spoken dynamic in the Black/white exchanges along with key musical connections.111 In seeking to distance his version from Jim Crow segregation, Breen also made a subtle but crucial alteration to its setting. Whereas in the 1935 published score the story is set in “The Recent Past,” in Breen’s production it became simply “The Past”—a time of fading memory intended to separate the stage action from contemporary racial strife in the United States.112 Reflecting this desire for distance, Breen revamped the treatment of Black/white relations by overemphasizing the antagonism of the Detective, making him into a cartoonish caricature of a racist, and by cutting the “sympathetic” Archdale scene entirely. Breen did, however, reintroduce the key moments of resistance by Porgy in act 1 and Serena’s trio in act 3 that had been left out of previous productions.

As to how the Black/white exchanges were presented in Breen’s production, we have striking documentary evidence. A live recording made in Germany during the 1952 European tour captured both the performance and an audience’s reaction to it.113 The recording reveals that Breen’s direction of these scenes, in particular the reformulated act 3, scene 2, called for both the Black and the white performers to exaggerate their interactions into caricature. Breen reinstated the entirety of the Black female trio’s exchange with the Detective, playing up the scene’s comedy; they also sang their responses using the musical phrases from Gershwin’s score. However, Breen cut the musical accompaniment in this section, such that the trio’s singing comes across as a novelty bordering on stereotype rather than a cohesive operatic device. As a result, exaggerated melodrama overshadows the exchange’s subtle yet powerful resistance. The exaggeration continues in the following passage, which uses material transplanted from the Archdale scene as the Coroner asks community members if they know Porgy and they feign ignorance. In the original context of the Archdale sequence, the community’s strategic resistance simply reads as a common practice for interactions with white people. But in the 1952 recording, we hear the Black characters answer the Coroner’s impassively delivered questions in a comedically elongated fashion, emphasizing “sonic blackness,” to use Nina Sun Eidsheim’s concept, in the contrast between Black and white vocal deliveries.114 In Breen’s staging, the performance of Blackness is magnified to the point of caricature, while that of whiteness appears to remain neutral. Nonetheless, what DuBose Heyward had once deemed the scene’s “swell comedy” is highly successful, judging by the reaction of the German audience: their laughter is audible throughout and they vigorously applaud as the exchange ends.

To my ear, Breen’s reimagining of act 3, scene 2, turns the nuanced sung/spoken exchanges of Gershwin’s score into distorted melodrama that evokes what Naomi André calls the “specter of minstrelsy.”115 Even as the Black cast members brought their own agency and virtuosity to the performance, Breen ultimately exercised creative control over the overall presentation of Black/white relations; indeed, analysis of his working copy of the score suggests that the recording represents his directorial intentions.116 Against the backdrop of the growing Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, he sought to satirize Southern white racism and police brutality, which became increasingly visible as nonviolent protests against Jim Crow conditions began to escalate. Breen’s radically hyperbolic staging, however, has the effect not of comedic subversion, but rather of masking white supremacy, softening its meaning in the present by playing up the exchanges as a farcical representation of the past. Whiteness was subtly left unscathed, shielded and hidden under laughter.

The Houston Grand Opera Production, 1976: Sharpening the Edges

Following the Black political gains of the Civil Rights Movement, Porgy and Bess, with its Jim Crow connotations, saw a sharp decline in popularity.117 It would not receive a major new production until a revival by the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in 1976, during a post–Civil Rights era that saw retrenchment of white power begin to take shape in the form of the “War on Drugs.”118 Helmed by director David Gockley and yet another white creative team, the HGO production notably restored Gershwin’s original structure, thereby resituating Porgy and Bess firmly as opera. This strategy proved to be a critical success that revitalized the work’s reputation and established its presence on the operatic stage. The production also featured an approach to whiteness that differed substantially from previous productions by abandoning caricature in favor of a sharper, more veristic representation of the police.

To a greater extent than previous productions, the HGO revival demonstrated how the opera’s original structure, inflected with pointed dramaturgical decisions, could illuminate rather than obfuscate the racial struggles of Jim Crow and the decades that followed. By restoring Gershwin’s recitatives and musical accompaniment, Gockley and music director John DeMain preserved the nuances of the sung/spoken effect and its marking of whiteness. Gone were Breen’s exaggerated, melodramatic exchanges and in their place came an emphasis on the violence of the Detective’s character, balanced by the restoration of Porgy’s and Serena’s resistance in acts 1 and 3. A powerful production photograph illustrates how Gockley’s staging reflected this emphasis (see figure 4). In this dramatic image, the Detective (Hansford Rowe) stands over the disabled Porgy (Donnie Ray Albert), with his pistol leveled directly at Porgy’s head. While the stage directions of the score call for the Detective to brandish his gun in his act 1 scene, the presence of the Coroner and Bess (holding Clara’s baby) in the photograph shows that it was taken during the exchange in act 3, scene 2, in which Porgy is questioned about Crown’s murder. This indicates that in Gockley’s staging the Detective threatened Porgy with violence a second time.

Figure 4

The Detective threatens Porgy in act 3, scene 2. Performance photograph from the Houston Grand Opera production, 1976. Photograph by Martha Swope. © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Used by permission.

Figure 4

The Detective threatens Porgy in act 3, scene 2. Performance photograph from the Houston Grand Opera production, 1976. Photograph by Martha Swope. © The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Used by permission.

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In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, during which instances of police brutality were repeatedly captured on film, the HGO’s staging choices signaled a shifting awareness of the portrayal of white supremacy and Black criminalization by law enforcement in Porgy and Bess. For the first time since the 1940s, the producers reinstated the racial slurs of the 1935 published edition in two instances, demonstrating a renewed engagement with the opera’s difficult past. One of these was the line spoken by the Detective to Porgy in act 1, “Look at me, you damn n***,” the slur in which Ira Gershwin had changed to the pale substitution “dummy,” thereby detaching the language from race in a moment of the drama that lays bare the realities of American racism.119 In contextualizing this particular usage, we might turn again to Toni Morrison: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”120 Yet Morrison also lists “obscuring state language” among the types of linguistic violence that must be rejected. Listening to Hansford Rowe perform the original language in a barking shout on the 1977 cast recording is powerfully unsettling.121 But it also makes the commonly performed substitution seem utterly weak, an ineffectual palimpsest that perhaps does more to obscure history than mediate it. Rather, the HGO, with cast approval, made an unshrinking decision to perform the original language in this most violent instance, highlighting the opera’s portrayal of white supremacist law enforcement. Yet by also staging Porgy’s key moment of musical resistance that follows it, in conjunction with the verisimilitude of police mistreatment, this production showed that the realities of oppression and contestation depicted in the 1935 published score could be vividly performed.

We now return to the Metropolitan Opera’s recent staging, which, like its predecessors, aligns with a period of fraught US racial politics, in this case the era in which the #BlackLivesMatter movement was facing off against a “law and order” presidency that had all but explicitly condoned white nationalism.122 That the Met chose the opera to open its 2019–20 season was significant, for it emphasized the organization’s growing commitment to Black operatic talent at a time when such commitment should be imperative for every opera house. Alongside the 2019 Porgy and Bess, the Met also announced for its 2020–21 season a production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019), marking the first time in the company’s 136-year history that it had programmed an opera by a Black composer.123 Though promising, the announcement drew attention to the lateness of this decision, while its proximity to Porgy suggested the latter as a somehow necessary bridge into Black opera by Black creators. Nonetheless, there is much to celebrate in the new Porgy production, from the power of its soloists and chorus to the vibrant choreography of Camille A. Brown, the sole Black contributor to another otherwise white production team. Yet the Met’s staging of the Black/white encounters also signals a kind of retrenchment, a circumvention of whiteness that raises questions about the persistently elusive position of race both in Porgy and Bess and in the operatic world more broadly.

To approach this contemporary production from a different critical angle, I want to draw on my own impressions as a participant-observer, a white audience member attending a performance in January of 2020. By that point, I had spent hundreds of hours scrutinizing the opera from both textual and historical perspectives, but I did not know how much it would be illuminated by experiencing a version of it as a spectator. I wondered how the passages I had analyzed so extensively on the page and in audio and video recordings would translate to the intangible experience of live performance. Would the racialized difference between singing and speaking be as significant as it appears in the text? How would the actors portray their roles and how would race relations be framed? How would we, the audience, respond?

Taking my seat, I know from press releases that, as in most prior revivals, director James Robinson has made significant cuts to the show, shortening it to two (overfilled) acts despite the original’s effective three-act structure. I expect that the Black/white scenes will not be performed in full. Indeed, they are among the shortened and excised passages, and once again their meanings are manipulated.124 The Archdale sequence in act 2, for example, has disappeared without a trace, and with it, the opera’s one direct reference to the legacy of slavery. I wonder why this tendency to cut Archdale has persisted across so many productions. The answer could be that it is an easy way of streamlining an opera that is so often deemed too long, and of saving money by hiring one fewer performer. But the character also represents a subtle form of white supremacy, the kind that white people tend not to want to see. Perhaps Archdale does not align with mainstream 2020 narratives of what Southern race relations looked like during Jim Crow, or perhaps the wealthy, majority-white opera audience of today wants to encounter white villainy clearly defined. Erasing the “white savior” character by cutting the scene, however, does not merely disappear the past; it obscures truths about the present.

In the two exchanges with police that remain, something stands out. Watching the first Detective scene, I notice that Robinson significantly downplays the character’s overt racism—a departure from earlier productions such as the HGO revival. He ignores the act 1 stage directions in which the character threatens violence by brandishing his pistol at Peter and Porgy. Performer Grant Neale likewise plays the character with an element of caricature and detachment, speaking in an overwrought Southern drawl reminiscent of old cartoons. And in act 3, Michael Lewis as the Coroner comes across with a similar kind of distance, like an actor playing an actor playing the character. Witnessing Neale’s and Lewis’s portrayals in the theater, I realize the complexity of performing these seemingly one-sided roles. Both actors appear to perform hollow shells of a historically distant idea of Southern whiteness. Rather than inhabit these Jim Crow–era law officials, they seem to be self-aware, commenting on the characters even as they play them. Gone is the overexaggerated racism of the mid-century productions, but also lost is the embodied representation of the Detective’s brutality and the Coroner’s oblivious racism that make the exchanges so violently resonant and relevant. The Met palliates whiteness, in doing so diverting attention away from its problematic undercurrents. I also realize, in the course of a three-and-a-half-hour performance, just how quickly the white characters come and go, especially with Robinson’s hurried pacing and cuts. I know that the opera and the performance are not about them, and should not be; the impression remains, however, that they have been conspicuously abbreviated, melting away, leaving only a faint trace of their caricature.125

The performance plays to a full house, including many Black attendees, and an energy of celebration circulates throughout.126 The feeling is one of celebrating not so much the Gershwins and Heywards’ opera, but rather the virtuosity, stamina, creativity, and ensemble craft of the Black cast performing it. And during the curtain calls, that feeling becomes palpable in the roaring, standing ovations, and cheers as the principals, secondaries, and chorus take their bows. But when the actors playing the white law enforcement characters walk on stage from the wings for their turn, something happens that catches me off guard. The audience stops applauding and boos them.

The boos begin almost as soon as the actors step downstage. Quickly taken up by the whole theater, the booing becomes a performance in itself, and it is one that holds different meanings depending on who is doing it. To me it seems like a moment for the majority-white audience to perform our disapproval of the past, to distance ourselves from these caricatures of violence. Unlike the Northern audiences of 1935, presented with Jim Crow race relations as the factual present, today’s New York audience has historical perspective on a production that seems to comment on an old form of whiteness. Yet this wave of jeers also makes me think of those late nineteenth-century melodramas in which audiences hissed at the villains while gleefully reveling in their antics. If anyone in Porgy and Bess should be on the receiving end of such a rebuke, it is Sporting Life; yet the brilliant Frederick Ballentine receives only applause and deservedly so. Perhaps this is because that character and his destructive actions feel real, while the portrayals of whiteness in the Met’s production feel shallow and false—like holographic shadows that seem to slip away from both history and the present. On the other hand, the booing calls attention to the white characters’ difference from the rest of the cast, making visible the fact that they did not sing on a stage meant for singing, in just about the only opera in the standard repertoire in which, to use bell hooks’s terminology, the margin becomes the center.127 Still, I cannot not help wondering if this reprimanding of the white characters might be a hollow gesture (at least on the part of the white audience members), one that gives whiteness a pass even as it performs disapproval of staged racial violence insidiously stripped of its fangs.

What do we as musicologists, performers, producers, and audiences do with Porgy and Bess today? Despite its transcendent qualities and musical excellence, which have earned it a deserved place as a repertoire opera, Porgy and Bess is and will always be a Jim Crow artifact. And although Plessy-era segregation no longer has legal standing, a shadow of its legality has followed Porgy and Bess into the present. This comes in the form of the work’s intellectual property structure, whereby it may be performed only if the African American roles are performed by Black singers.128 Of course, this racial casting clause has had positive effects over time, providing career opportunities for many Black opera performers—but it has also led to these performers being typecast and passed over for other operatic roles even as opera houses mount Porgy and Bess.129 The unspoken implication of the copyright structure, however, is that the white roles have no intellectual property restrictions; the work’s Jim Crow color line is ensured only insofar as it makes performances contingent on the presence of Black performers, while white presence remains a tacit assumption with no legal consequence.

Even though Porgy and Bess remains a Jim Crow artifact, there has never been a time throughout its history when its depiction of US race relations has not been relevant. Wishing to dull the edges of the most racially violent parts of the opera might be understandable, but at this point in our history, it should be inexcusable. White supremacy continues to endure—in musicology, in the classroom, on the opera stage, and in the opera theater, often advanced by those who believe themselves to oppose it. And Porgy and Bess carries its scars, no matter how the opera is staged. Yet when productions expurgate or moderate or fail to contextualize the most obvious evidence, for the superficial reason of producing a more entertaining, innocuous, and streamlined show, are they not also subconsciously erasing the transcripts of a past from which we are supposed to be learning and moving forward? Do they not perpetuate the trap that James Baldwin noted of assuaging white audiences’ guilt about Negroes while attacking none of their fantasies?130 One could argue that to downplay whiteness in the opera promotes deliberate forgetting—promotes speaking in the “obscuring state language” of violence that Toni Morrison argues we must reject.

In the introduction to a recent colloquy on sexual violence in Western opera published in this Journal, Suzanne Cusick and Monica Hershberger call for “making ever more deliberate choices about our own performative acts of interpretation—be it as producers, stage directors, performers, composers, or scholar-teachers.”131 Something similar could be said of racial violence in opera, the treatment of whiteness in Porgy and Bess being a case in point. An ever-growing number of opera houses are programming works by Black composers and on Black subjects, and hiring more Black singers and creative staff, slowly bringing about much-needed change in a musical field whose history, traditions, and institutions have been overwhelmingly white.132 Yet Porgy and Bess somehow remains the most prominent work to represent African Americans in the repertoire. We should follow Naomi André’s proposition that whenever opera companies stage it, they also in the same season program a work by a Black composer, hire Black singers for other productions, and contextualize the complexities of Porgy and Bess with informed lectures and program notes.133 I would urge that the portrayals of white supremacy and Black resistance explored in this article be included within such contextual discussions. And when the Met programs Porgy and Bess again, it should pair it with a Black-created work such as Anthony Davis’s The Central Park Five (2019), which tackles head-on the violence of the legal system that is only peripherally portrayed in Gershwin’s opera. Further, when staging the opera, production teams, with input from the cast, should more fully consider the implications of making cuts to the Black/white exchanges. Finally, if intellectual property law continues to demand the presence of Black singers to authorize performances of Porgy and Bess, that demand should extend to Black stage and music directors if not an entirely Black production team. As we strive to correct the imbalances and distortions of representation in the world of opera, we must also confront the operatic world’s long-unexamined white center, brought acutely to light by the characters in Porgy and Bess who do not sing.

I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers of this Journal, whose invaluable feedback, provided amid the difficulties of a pandemic, guided this article to its final state. I am also deeply thankful to Charles Hiroshi Garrett and Lena Leson for their input on numerous drafts, and to Mark Clague, whose seminar and themed AMS panel on Porgy and Bess gave the project its start. Thanks also to Naomi André, Gabriela Cruz, and Andrew S. Kohler, all of whom offered insights and advice that shaped different stages of the project. Finally, thanks to Michael Owen and the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts for facilitating publication of the artwork, and to Joshua DeVries at Just a Theory Press for his engraving skills. An early version of the article was presented at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, San Antonio, November 2018.

1.

Du Bois, “Souls of White Folk,” 29.

2.

Turner, Africanisms, 191. Turner is specific on gender in these translations.

3.

Baldwin, “On Catfish Row,” 618.

4.

Ibid., 618–19.

5.

Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 70.

6.

Examples include Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks (1934), Hughes’s play Mulatto (1935), and William Grant Still and Katherine Garrison Chapin’s choral work And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940).

7.

Gruenberg’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play ran at the racially restricted Metropolitan Opera and featured white baritone Lawrence Tibbett singing the principal role in blackface. Premiering on Broadway, Four Saints dealt with a European subject but employed an all-Black cast, many of whom would later sing in Gershwin’s opera.

8.

Examples of Black opera from the period include Harry Lawrence Freeman’s Voodoo (1928), Clarence Cameron White’s Ouanga (1932), Shirley Graham’s Tom Tom (1932), and William Grant Still’s Blue Steel (1934).

9.

Produced by the Theatre Guild, Porgy and Bess premiered on September 30, 1935, at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, and then opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre on October 10. For accounts of its production history, see Alpert, Life and Times, and Pollack, George Gershwin, chs. 32–33.

10.

See Allen, “American Folk Opera?”; Allen and Cunningham, “Cultural Uplift ”; André, “Complexities”; Brooks, “Woman Is a Sometime Thing”; Brown, “Problems of Race”; and Crawford, “It Ain’t Necessarily Soul.”

11.

Two important exceptions that situate white identity in the opera are André, Black Opera, esp. 100–105, and Noonan, Strange Career.

12.

Archdale is identified as a lawyer in two of the opera’s sources—the 1925 novel and 1927 play (see below)—but not in the opera itself.

13.

See André, Bryan, and Saylor, Blackness in Opera; Ingraham, So, and Moodley, Opera in a Multicultural World; Pistorius, “Inhabiting Whiteness”; and Tsou, “Composing Racial Difference.”

14.

I employ the term “racial formation” in accordance with Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s understanding of race as a social construction: Omi and Winant, Racial Formation.

15.

Andersen, “Whitewashing Race,” 21.

16.

André, Black Opera, 1.

17.

Ibid., 208.

18.

Also guiding this article are recent interventions by Matthew D. Morrison and Philip Ewell in musicology and music theory respectively, which articulate the foundational whiteness of our disciplines and offer analytical methodologies for disruptive change: Morrison, “Race, Blacksound”; Ewell, “Music Theory.”

19.

For analytical studies, see Davis and Pollack, “Rotational Form”; Gilbert, Music of Gershwin, ch. 10; Johnson, “Gershwin’s ‘American Folk Opera’”; Reynolds, “Porgy and Bess”; and Starr, “Toward a Reevaluation.”

20.

Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 90.

21.

Robinson, Forgeries of Memory, xii.

22.

André argues that the white police can even seem like caricatures, although I would add that this largely depends on the way they are performed: André, Black Opera, 102.

23.

hooks, Talking Back, 113.

24.

Heyward’s nonfiction writings are collected in Hutchisson, DuBose Heyward Reader. For a critical analysis of these writings, see Noonan, Strange Career, 25–39.

25.

Heyward and Heyward, Porgy: A Play in Four Acts, x.

26.

Noonan, Strange Career, 26.

27.

On Gullah culture, see Creel, Peculiar People.

28.

On Heyward’s youthful experiences with Gullah people in Charleston, see Hutchisson, DuBose Heyward, 4–19.

29.

Heyward, Porgy, 51.

30.

Gullah developed out of a mixture of English, Portuguese, Jamaican patois, and various languages of primarily West African slaves; see Creel, Peculiar People, 96–99. For the opera’s treatment of Gullah, see André, “Complexities,” 189–90, and Green-Turner, “Gullah Diction.”

31.

See Noonan, Strange Career, 20. On power relations between General English and African American languages, see Morgan, Language, Discourse and Power, 65–68.

32.

On whiteness as unmarked, see Chambers, “Unexamined.”

33.

There is an important element of truth in this protective response with regard to Gullah communities of the time. In his 1949 fieldwork-based study of the Gullah language, Black linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner notes, “The author of the novel entitled Porgy was not at all exaggerating a characteristic of the Gullah Negro in that scene in which officers of the law entered Catfish Row in search of the murderer Crown, but were unable to get sufficient information. … The Gullahs say that they have fared so badly at the hands of strangers that they are suspicious of anyone whom they do not know very well”: Turner, Africanisms, 11.

34.

Heyward, Porgy, 142.

35.

Frequently cited critiques by Black commentators include Johnson, “Porgy and Bess”; Baldwin, “On Catfish Row”; Era Bell Thompson, “Why Negroes Don’t Like Porgy and Bess,” Ebony 14, no. 2 (October 1959): 50–52, 54; and Cruse, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 100–111. For analysis of these and other critical responses, see Noonan, Strange Career, 166–70, 217–24, 271–77.

36.

Dorothy Heyward created the early drafts of the play and DuBose provided input on later drafts. Both are credited as authors. See Alpert, Life and Times, 45. DuBose’s libretto retained the general structure of the play’s Black/white exchanges, with numerous lines transferred verbatim. For these exchanges in the play, see Heyward and Heyward, Porgy: A Play in Four Acts, 34–39, 69–80, 169–83.

37.

For a version of the play that offers a more accurate realization of Gullah, see Geraty, Porgy: A Gullah Version.

38.

Heyward and Heyward, Porgy: A Play in Four Acts, 34. In quotations from all sources, I have reproduced the capitalization of terms such as “White,” “black,” and “Negro.”

39.

See also the passage in the play in which Archdale enters Catfish Row and triggers the abrupt ending of a Gullah folksong: ibid., 67–69.

40.

For a discussion of the ways in which white authors used literary depictions of Blackness to negotiate white identity, see Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 51–59.

41.

In performance, the rhythmic notation serves merely as a guide to approximate speech patterns. Throughout the opera, the Black characters also often switch to “x” note head spoken lines. But the orchestra usually continues to accompany their lines in these instances, unlike the white characters’ dialogue, which lacks music.

42.

Stoever defines the sonic color line as enabling “listeners to construct and discern racial identities based on voices, sounds, and particular soundscapes … and, in turn, to mobilize racially coded batteries of sounds as discrimination by assigning them differential cultural, social, and political value”: Stoever, Sonic Color Line, 11.

43.

Gershwin scholars Howard Pollack and Larry Starr both convincingly argue that the novel’s description of the “many-colored” community sounds disappearing as Archdale arrives likely provided the impetus for Gershwin to make the white characters nonmusical: Pollack, George Gershwin, 576; Starr, George Gershwin, 127–28.

44.

Letter of November 12, 1933, in Wyatt and Johnson, George Gershwin Reader, 204.

45.

See Pollack, George Gershwin, 575.

46.

The trip took place between mid-June and the end of July. For accounts of Gershwin’s travels, see Alpert, Life and Times, 87–92, and Celenza, “Exploring New Worlds,” 169–77.

47.

“Gershwin Gets His Cues for ‘Porgy’ on a Carolina Beach,” New York Herald Tribune, July 8, 1934.

48.

W. W. Anderson, “Gershwin Lives the Life of Gullah in Writing Music for ‘Porgy,’” Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1934.

49.

Scholars such as Amiri Baraka, Eileen Southern, Samuel A. Floyd Jr., and Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. have shown how Black lived experience and cultural memory shaped, and were shaped by, music making and how these connections are critical to understanding the history of Black music: Baraka [Jones], Blues People; Southern, Music of Black Americans; Floyd, Power of Black Music; Ramsey, Race Music.

50.

Crawford, “Where Did Porgy and Bess Come From?,” 717–25.

51.

See Radano, Lying Up a Nation, 105–15.

52.

Starr, George Gershwin, 128–29.

53.

Stoever, Sonic Color Line, 13.

54.

Such as casting the Black characters’ lines in Heyward’s distorted dialect.

55.

See, for example, Noonan, Strange Career, 143–47.

56.

Table 1 is derived from Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, piano-vocal score, copyright 1962. All quotations from the libretto in this article preserve the capitalization, punctuation, and textual inconsistencies found in the published piano-vocal score. For the two versions of this score, 1935 and copyright 1962, see note 69 below.

57.

Unless otherwise noted, examples are transcribed from Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, piano-vocal score, copyright 1962; editorial inconsistencies have been reproduced. References to the score are to this same edition, using rehearsal numbers followed by the measures within that rehearsal section; the rehearsal numbers restart from 1 in each act. For copyright information for all music examples, see the caption to figure 1.

58.

The D–B♭ motive also occurs in other passages that contain references to white society, suggesting a broader thematic connection; see Bess’s reference to the police in act 1, scene 1, Jake’s reference to the Board of Health in act 1, scene 2, and two references to the police by Sporting Life in act 3. (See table 1 for precise score locations.)

59.

See Morgan, Language, Discourse and Power, 24.

60.

See Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 91–92.

61.

This is a central argument in many foundational texts, including Dyer, White; Frankenberg, White Women; Lipsitz, Possessive Investment; and Roediger, Wages of Whiteness.

62.

Ahmed, “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” 150.

63.

DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess, first-draft libretto, box 29, folder 36, George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Library of Congress.

64.

The chord, which contains seven pitches of an octatonic collection, combines a C major triad (with an added A♮ in the top voice) with an E-flat minor triad.

65.

We can trace this progression to the influence of composer-theorist Joseph Schillinger, with whom Gershwin studied from 1932 to 1936. It employs Schillinger’s concept of “symmetric harmony,” a process involving the separation of roots in a chord progression by a fixed interval, in this case a descending minor third, producing a cyclical, nondiatonic group of chords that constitutes a symmetrical division of the octave. See Schillinger, Schillinger System, 1:388–400. On Gershwin’s use of Schillingerian cyclic harmony in this scene, see Nauert, “Theory and Practice,” 14–17.

66.

In addition to the abovementioned Black/white exchanges in acts 2 and 3, the progression recurs at a number of moments in the drama involving uncertainty or distress. It returns later in act 1, scene 2 (R205–R206), in a passage that mentions the Board of Health; during the hurricane in act 2, scene 4 (R244.4–R245 and R273.4–R247); and in act 3, scene 3 (R154.2 and R169–R172), underneath Porgy’s panic at Bess’s absence when he returns from jail. Many thanks to Andrew S. Kohler for pointing these sections out to me.

67.

On the depiction of Catfish Row as being in perpetual struggle, see André, Black Opera, 97.

68.

In each exchange, the progression begins on F♯, so that the cycle’s four roots read: F♯–E♭–C–A.

69.

Two versions of the published piano-vocal score exist. The first, published in 1935, includes the racial slurs also found in the first-draft libretto and holograph piano-vocal score. The second appeared on the renewal of the work’s copyright in 1962. Heeding cast objections to the slurs in productions of the 1940s and ’50s, Ira Gershwin undertook to replace them with substitutions, which were incorporated into this second version and have since become standard performance practice; see Gershwin, Lyrics on Several Occasions, 83, and Pollack, George Gershwin, 611. This second version of the published piano-vocal score is the one that is currently available commercially.

70.

Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, piano-vocal score, 1935, 143. Ira Gershwin’s substitute language in the later version of the score is “Um! A saucer buryin’ setup, I see.” “Saucer-buried” refers to the Gullah practice of placing out a saucer for community donations when a family could not afford burial costs.

71.

Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 148.

72.

Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, piano-vocal score, 1935, 145.

73.

Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, holograph piano-vocal score, George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Library of Congress. The single accent over the slur and substitution word in example 4 appears in the published piano-vocal score of 1935, likely an editorial mistake by Albert Sirmay, who prepared the edition.

74.

See Morgan, Language, Discourse and Power, 24.

75.

Also called a “sharp 9” chord, this harmony is common in jazz and blues, perhaps reflecting the influence of Black musical cultures on Gershwin. It is a significant harmony throughout the opera, often being associated with Porgy’s character.

76.

On counterlanguage in Black American discourse, see Morgan, Language, Discourse and Power, 22–25.

77.

Kelley, Race Rebels, 7–8. Kelley adapts this term from anthropologist James C. Scott.

78.

Washington, Medical Apartheid.

79.

Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 82–83.

80.

Alexander, New Jim Crow, 31. On Black incarceration during Jim Crow, see also Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name.

81.

See Alexander, New Jim Crow, 190–200.

82.

Ikard, Lovable Racists, 24–25.

83.

See ibid., 50–61.

84.

Berrey, Jim Crow Routine, 4.

85.

In the novel, Serena knows to expect Archdale because he is the lawyer for the wealthy family to whom she appealed for help on the grounds that her father had worked as their domestic servant: Heyward, Porgy, 21, 53.

86.

Harris, “Whiteness as Property.”

87.

Ibid., 1716.

88.

Letter of March 27, 1934, box 64, folder 24, George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Library of Congress.

89.

hooks, Talking Back, 9.

90.

My reading of this scene is informed by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s influential theory of “intersectionality”: Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins.”

91.

Porgy and Bess souvenir program, 1942, Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts Archive, Library of Congress. This item does not yet have a box or folder number as the collection is still being processed.

92.

Highlighting Gershwin’s repurposing of the musical material from previous exchanges, some of the cyclic progression’s chords are chromatically altered during key moments of the scene, specifically in the trio’s two most elaborate melodic passages. For their second longest phrase (R51.1–3), Gershwin changes what should be F-sharp minor to F-sharp major. Likewise, in the longest and most emphatic final phrase (R52.1–4), the (0248) tetrachord on E♭ is shifted to rich E-flat major with a seventh in the bass (see example 8).

93.

The Coroner, little discussed in this article, is depicted as closer to Archdale than to the Detective, in that he behaves in a somewhat sympathetic manner. He accepts Serena’s alibi without question, and his tone with Porgy later in the scene is not accusative like that of the Detective. He does, however, pressure Porgy to view Crown’s corpse for his inquest, and in the process reveals a kind of oblivious racism in the flippant way in which he discusses Black bodies. This includes uttering (in the original text) one of the most devastating lines in the opera: “Oh cheer up. I reckon you’ve seen a dead N*** before. It’ll all be over in a few minutes” (act 3, scene 2, R58.7; slur later replaced by “body”). In this casually violent line, found in a passage that is almost always cut in productions, the Coroner demonstrates an utter disregard for Black lives beyond the responsibilities of his office.

94.

Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins,” 1243.

95.

Hartman, Wayward Lives, 349.

96.

Horowitz, “On My Way,” 46.

97.

What constitutes the definitive performing version has been a matter of musicological debate. Charles Hamm argued that the heavily edited 1935 show represents Gershwin’s intentions more legitimately than the published score on the grounds that Gershwin oversaw the production before his death. Analyzing the full form of the opening scene, however, Davis and Pollack find significant motivic, formal, and dramaturgical logic that the 1935 cuts undermine. Hamm, “Theatre Guild Production,” 523; Davis and Pollack, “Rotational Form,” 402–11.

98.

The 1985 production presented the complete version of the opera, which had not been seen since 1935; it was criticized for excessive length; see Brown, “Problems of Race,” 90–99.

99.

Associated Press, “Met Opera to Hire All-Black Chorus for ‘Porgy and Bess,’” Billboard, February 21, 2019, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8499482/met-opera-all-black-chorus-porgy-and-bess.

100.

Harris argues that this key racist decision, in reaffirming the relegation of Black Americans to second-class status, helped codify whiteness as a “traditional status-property”: Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1746–50.

101.

The Met had taken this approach for Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones, which has since faded into obscurity.

102.

Decker, Show Boat, 6.

103.

A celebrated figure in Black choral music, Jessye (1895–1992) led the chorus in numerous revivals of Porgy and Bess, often as the only Black contributor on the production side.

104.

On the dynamics between production teams and casts, see Brown, “Performers in Catfish Row.”

105.

Following the first performance, Gershwin, Mamoulian, and conductor Alexander Smallens decided upon cuts of both recitatives and song numbers to allay concerns about the running time and the singers’ endurance, given the work’s gargantuan scale and performance schedule; see Pollack, George Gershwin, 601–2.

106.

For the full list of cuts, see Hamm, “Theatre Guild Production,” 528–30.

107.

The tour schedule is reproduced in Uy, “Performing Catfish Row,” 472.

108.

Crawford’s version streamlined the opera to a running time of two and a half hours and brought it closer to musical theater by changing the majority of the recitatives to spoken dialogue. The latter had a significant impact on the racialized sung/spoken dynamic of the scenes involving white characters. For an excellent analysis of this production, see Lynch, “Cheryl Crawford’s Porgy and Bess.”

109.

On the cultural politics of this production’s tours, see Leson, “‘I’m On My Way’”; Monod, “Disguise, Containment”; Uy, “Performing Catfish Row”; and Noonan, Strange Career, 185–243. For broader literature encompassing Cold War–era cultural tours, music, and race, see Fosler-Lussier, Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy; Davenport, Jazz Diplomacy; Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World; and Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line.

110.

Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1753.

111.

Converting to spoken dialogue would remain common for revivals and adaptations of Porgy and Bess through Diane Paulus, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Diedre Murray’s heavily revised musical theater version of 2012.

112.

See Noonan, Strange Career, 199.

113.

George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, RIAS-Unterhaltingsorchester, Alexander Smallens, recorded Berlin, 1952, Audite 23.405, 2008, 2 compact discs.

114.

Eidsheim, “Marian Anderson.”

115.

André, Black Opera, 105.

116.

Robert Breen, personal copy of Porgy and Bess, box 2.27, folder 3, Robert Breen Archives, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University. Thanks to Lena Leson for directing me to this source.

117.

This was due in part to Otto Preminger’s 1959 film adaptation, which drew sharp critiques from prominent Black intellectuals such as Harold Cruse, Era Bell Thompson, and James Baldwin; see André, Black Opera, 97–98, and Crawford, “It Ain’t Necessarily Soul.”

118.

See Alexander, New Jim Crow.

119.

The other instance is a devastating line spoken by Bess to Sporting Life after he offers her cocaine in act 3, scene 2.

120.

Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 15.

121.

George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, Houston Grand Opera, John DeMain, recorded 1977, RCA Records 888880792792, 2003, 3 compact discs.

122.

#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometi following the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. BLM has since expanded into a global antiracist movement. See Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

123.

The production was ultimately postponed on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was rescheduled for the opening night of the 2021–22 season, the spot that had been occupied by Porgy in 2019.

124.

Robinson includes the first Detective scene intact, retaining Porgy’s gesture of musical defiance. In the act 3 trio, however, he makes the same cut as the 1935 production, eliminating the women’s elaborate buildup of musical phrases and demonstrating that the significance of their subversive trio continues to be overlooked.

125.

These performances can be heard on the Met Opera’s live recording of the production, which won a Grammy for Best Opera Recording in 2020: The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” Metropolitan Opera, David Robertson, Metropolitan Opera 810004201187, 2019, 3 compact discs. For a critical race analysis of this recording, see Timmermans, “Opera, Sound Recording,” 15–20.

126.

On audience representation, André writes that “going to Porgy and Bess is a unique experience, and one especially exciting for black audiences, for practically nowhere else in the operatic repertory (before or since) do we have the chance to see so many black people onstage—and in the audience”: André, Black Opera, 98.

127.

hooks, Feminist Theory.

128.

On the legal implications of the racial casting requirement, see Arewa, “Copyright on Catfish Row,” 325–28.

129.

See Brown, “Performers in Catfish Row,” 165–66.

130.

See above.

131.

Cusick and Hershberger, introduction to “Colloquy: Sexual Violence in Opera,” 218.

132.

See Joshua Barone, “Opera Can No Longer Ignore Its Race Problem,” New York Times, July 16, 2020. The Metropolitan Opera has not been at the forefront of this remarkably slow process.

133.

André, “Complexities,” 194–95.

Archival Sources
Robert Breen Archives, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Robert Breen, personal copy of Porgy and Bess (box 2.27, folder 3)
George and Ira Gershwin Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, holograph piano-vocal score, bound
DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess, first-draft libretto (box 29, folder 36)
Dubose Heyward, letter to George Gershwin of March 27, 1934 (box 64, folder 24)
Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts Archive, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Porgy and Bess souvenir program, 1942
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Recordings
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The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”
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