August 12, 2011

Scholarly re-imagining of the Gershwins' classic musical brings unprecedented success, with plans for more.

Court Theatre’s recent production of Porgy and Bess marked a moment of remarkable transformation for the 56-year-old organization.

The musical was a huge success with audiences and critics, becoming the highest-grossing and best-attended show in Court history. But it also has changed how the theater’s leaders imagine their institution’s future. Building on its high production standards and the artistic vision of director Charles Newell, Court made the production an occasion to strengthen its partnerships and establish itself as a dynamic center for classic theater.

Bold re-imaginings of classic musicals

Newell has gained a national reputation for his bold re-imaginings of classic musicals, from his intimate take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel in 2008, to his remarkable staging of Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change. However, even he couldn’t have imagined the success that the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess would attain during its recent run, which closed on July 3 after an extended seven-week engagement, with sold-out shows throughout.

Porgy and Bess also was the first Court production to benefit from a newly articulated approach to producing professional theater at the University of Chicago.

“Part of establishing Court as a center means working more closely with the amazing intellectual resources that are all around us here at the University,” says Newell. As one of the few professional theaters in the country housed on a university campus, Court has staked its reputation not only on its ability to “re-examine, re-envision, and renew classic texts,” but also on the theater’s expanding efforts to integrate its productions into undertakings that enlist the scholars at the University and leaders in the community. The success of Porgy and Bess suggests those efforts are paying off.

The complicated history of Porgy and Bess

The challenge of producing Porgy and Bess includes grappling with its controversial history. Since its 1935 debut, the Gershwins' folk opera, based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, has been roundly criticized for its stereotypical African American characters and misrepresentations of the South Carolina Gullah culture. “It is a complicated piece with a complicated history,” says Court dramaturg Drew Dir. “People praise the music and the performers who made history with the piece, but they're very careful to sidestep the story or the characters or the elements of the plot that they found crudely drawn.”

And yet, Porgy and Bess continues to exert a pull. (Summertime is one of the most-covered songs in popular music.) “When I listened to the music and read the novel, there was something really instinctual and gut about it,” says Newell, who saw his job as “telling the story of the community out of which it came.”

In the research conducted by Newell and Dir, two University of Chicago scholars became vitally important. The work of the late linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, PhD'26, who anatomized the African influences in the Gullah dialect, provided “the greatest source” for Dir’s research into Gullah language and culture. And ethnomusicologist Travis Jackson, associate professor of music and the humanities, worked closely with Newell, Dir, and music director Doug Peck to find ways to cull and shape the score (which, without cuts, would run about four hours) in order to best serve the story of life in fictional “Catfish Row.” The result was a wildly praised minimalist production that brought to life a cast of 15 and a six-member orchestra against John Culbert's stark-white set.

“By removing the necessity for faithfulness to operatic conventions, Charlie and Doug gave themselves considerable freedom to explore the story, to make the characters believable rather than the stock figures that make operas intelligible,” says Jackson, who also presented pre-concert lectures on Porgy and Bess for the Lyric Opera production in 2008. “We spent a good amount of time last year going through the score, separately and in long meetings, discussing each piece of music, each transition, each piece of dialogue.”

Building connections and a center for classic theater

In addition to enlisting University resources, Court also collaborated with other established Hyde Park arts organizations to build the event that the play became. The DuSable Museum of African American History presented a concurrent exhibit, “Porgy and Bess: 1925-2011,” which explored the decades-long controversies of the story from the perspective of black critics and artists. Additionally, DOC Films screened a special series, “White on Black: African Americans in Hollywood, 1929-1960.” Court also created a micro website on its main site for those who wanted to learn more before—or without—leaving home for the play.

“We aren’t simply geared toward establishing Court as a world-class center for classic theater," says Adam Thurman, Court’s Director of Marketing and Communications, noting that Court’s efforts provide a framework for how the theater wants to work with the University and the community. “Part of what’s unique is that through Court the University is trying to be better connected to the community as a whole. This is part of the University trying to be a better neighbor. They see the arts as a strategic part of that.”

Says Newell, “Porgy and Bess’s success reveals the impact of long-range artistic planning, accessing University resources and community partners. In our upcoming season, you will see another level added to our efforts as a center for classic theater, in productions that will resonate

By Kerry Reid

Court Theatre's recent production of Porgy and Bess, directed by Charles Newell, built on the theater's move toward establishing itself as a dynamic center for classic theater performances. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)