Catfish Row comes to Cowtown in an updated 'Porgy and Bess'

Porgy and Bess is still raising questions after three-quarters of a century.

The famous stage work by George Gershwin has 75 candles on its birthday cake this year -- it debuted on Broadway in 1935 -- a milestone being honored by a new touring production that comes to Bass Hall on Wednesday and Thursday.

But despite its long history, the work is still dogged by two fundamental questions: Is it an opera or a musical? And does it demean blacks in America or celebrate their perseverance?

For this production's director, the first question is easy.

"There are certainly musical-theater elements in it," says director Charles Randolph-Wright. "But I think this is the great American opera. Almost every word of it is sung. That's why it's an opera. It doesn't have a book [the text of a musical]."

But the second question is a bit tougher.

"It's had a controversial history, especially with the African-American audience," explains Randolph-Wright, whose extensive acting and directing credits include being part of the original Broadway cast of the popular musical Dreamgirls. "The problem with this piece is that it presents stereotypical images we don't want perpetuated in the black community. We don't want this 1935 image perpetuated."

Redefining a character

Randolph-Wright was especially concerned about the portrayal of the disabled male title character.

"Sometimes Porgy is portrayed as this downtrodden, pitiful character," says the director, while on a stop with the tour in Ohio. "But when I read the book, I realized that Porgy was the heart of the community. He was the one people turned to for help when dealing with white people, for example. So, I don't have him on the cart [Porgy often rolls about the stage on a 'goat cart']. That image is so degrading. It is iconoclastic, but degrading."

He also wanted a different look for this production, which features new sets and costumes.

"I told my costume designer, 'No burlap on this stage,'" says Randolph-Wright, noting that the play's characters are often clothed in rags. But, since the context of the play depicts times when the characters would be dressed up to go out, Randolph-Wright wanted a "more elegant look." And he didn't have to go far to show his designer what he had in mind.

"I used pictures of my relatives from the 1930s," says the director, who is a native of South Carolina and has relatives in Charleston, where this story is set.

Down but not out

Porgy and Bess is based on the novel Porgy by Charleston writer DuBose Heyward.

It tells the story of the denizens of Catfish Row, a fictional black neighborhood imagined to be in the author's hometown. It is a grim place where drinking and laughter only temporarily gloss over the pain of poverty. Drugs and gambling fuel the neighborhood's economy and its continual slide into a social abyss.

A fight over a dice game leads to a murder in Act I that puts all of the work's key elements in motion.

Set against this crime story is Porgy's love for Bess, a prostitute and girlfriend of one of the play's roughest characters, Crown.

Porgy's quest to win Bess' heart is thwarted at every turn by various acts of man and nature -- from thuggish white cops to a devastating hurricane. He wins a few victories along the way in this passionate drama, but if you are expecting a happy ending, you obviously haven't seen too many operas.

Still, Randolph-Wright finds some light at the end of this show's tunnel.

"I really wanted this to be a love story. I feel you need to believe that Porgy and Bess love each other for this opera to work. And for that reason, I think there is great hope and promise in this piece. I think it is a lesson in overcoming obstacles," says Randolph-Wright, who now calls New York home while also spending a great deal of time in Los Angeles doing film and television work.

So Porgy and Bess will be arriving with some baggage, as it always has. But Randolph-Wright does not hesitate when asked how the work has managed to triumph over its own obstacles for 75 years.

"Because its music is so glorious. This score is still stunning," he says. "And there is nothing like hearing these songs sung live with an orchestra."