Nov 29, 2016

Porgy and Bess: Black Beefcake Folk Opera

I never saw "the American folk opera" Porgy and Bess (1935) before my celebrity boyfriend took me in the spring of 1987, though we played some of the songs in orchestra in high school. They're fun, though sometimes tainted by casual heterosexism.  In "It' Ain't Necessarily So," we hear the Biblical story of Methuselah, who lived 900 years:

Who calls dat livin', when no gal will give in, to no man who's lived 900 years.

It's really not so much an opera as a Broadway musical (and there are musical versions), so it has the standard obsession over "love! love! love!"   But what other musical is going to give you blasphemy, drugs, murder, prostitution, beefcake, and gay symbolism?

Set in the Catfish Row neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, it stars Bess, a drug addict and prostitute who is looked down upon in the community.  When her pimp, Crown, goes on the lam after killing someone, Bess needs a new man. She selects disabled beggar Porgy.  They fall in love.

Meanwhile innocent bystander Peter is arrested for the murder. 

Many fishermen are killed in a storm. 

Their women mourn them.

Crown returns, rapes Bess, and is murdered.  Porgy is arrested.  Released, he returns, rich from a crap game, but Bess has run  off with oily drug dealer Sportin' Life.

With agony and bitter tears all around, the curtain falls.

And the end result, other than angst and sadness?

A mostly black cast displaying a lot of beefcake.  Muscular, semi-nude Joshua Henry (top photo, from Dream Girls), Norm Lewis (second photo), Donovan Singletary (left).  Black beefcake is rare on screen, and even more rare on stage, except maybe in productions of The Wiz.

And gay symbolism: every woman has her man, and mourns him when he is killed or put in prison, which always happens. Men are always unfaithful to their women.  Relationships are always temporary; "a woman is a sometime thing."

The moral: heterosexual romance is always doomed.

 What remains are men together, singing joyfully as they play craps or head out to the sea in ships.

What remains are women together, singing mournfully as they comfort each other over their losses.

Same-sex romance is, in the end, valued.

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