the new version of “Porgy and Bess”
In addition to possibly rectifying racial wrongs by fleshing out stereotypes and adjusting the dialect, Parks and her collaborators have attempted to strengthen out the often-two-dimensional Bess, the central woman character, who is less well-written than the male leads. Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character,” explains Audra MacDonald, the actor who plays her in the production (a Broadway star, she’s also known for her work on Private Practice). Addicted to drugs, Bess spends most of the play going back and forth between two men: Crown, who commits murder in the first act, and Porgy, who commits it in the third. Throughout, Bess lacks agency, moved by her addiction or the men around her rather than her own thoughts and desires.
At the end of the original opera, Bess, driven by her addiction, leaves Porgy for Sportin’ Life. In the new adaptation (as it really should be called), Bess chooses to stay with Porgy. Critics have charged that the change needlessly creates a “happy ending,” but this could be one way that Paulus and her collaborators can address the issue of Bess’s agency. Having her choose to stay with the man she truly loves rather than live as a slave to her drug problem could read as a story of a woman who can change her own life for the better–or it could read as another instance of Bess making a decision based primarily on a man. Only the live performance, made up of the Gershwins’ music, Parks’ word choices, the characterization of MacDonald and the direction of Paulus, can tell.