A photo from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

May 12, 2011 – July 3, 2011

by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
Directed by Charles Newell
Music Direction by Doug Peck
Artistic Consultant Ron OJ Parson

Due to unprecedented ticket demand, Porgy and Bess adds 16 performances. Extended through July 3, 2011. Get your tickets before they're gone!

Porgy and Bess remains George Gershwin’s magnum opus, with an unforgettable score that includes songs (“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) later recorded by popular musicians from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald. Coming off their 2008 Jeff Award-winning production of Caroline, or Change, Charles Newell and Doug Peck come face-to-face with one of the greatest—and most controversial—pieces of American music theater ever created. Often denounced as a racially insensitive portrayal of black southerners, Newell and Peck, in collaboration with Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson and an outstanding, will present a thoughtful, never-before-seen retelling of Gershwin and Heyward’s“folk opera” Porgy and Bess, a classic but contested piece of American theater history.

Approximate running time: Act 1 65 minutes, Act 2 65 minutes


Corporate Sponsor  Allstate  

Season Sponsor   Hyde Park Bank    Foundation Sponsor  The Joyce Foundation

Support for the "Classics in Context" Series Illinois Humanities Council 


Catfish Row. In Catfish Row, a tenement building in Charleston, the community begins its ritual of Saturday evening with Clara singing a lullaby to her infant child while the men call to order the sacred game of craps. Sporting Life, a drug dealer who peddles a narcotic called “Happy Dust,” is caught introducing a pair of heretical dice, while Serena reprimands her husband Robbins for gambling. Jake, a fisherman, invites Jim to leave the cotton fields and join him on his boat, The Seagull. Jake takes the baby from his wife Clara and sings his own lullaby. Enter Lily’s husband Peter, the honey man, partially deaf. Porgy enters, a disabled beggar, the community’s burden. Taking the money he’s earned begging on the streets of Charleston, he joins the craps game; so does Crown, a powerful stevedore. With him is Bess, Crown’s mistress, an outsider whom the women of Catfish Row shun. Porgy watches her from afar. Meanwhile, the ritual of craps is interrupted by a fight. Crown, who is drunk and high on Happy Dust, kills Robbins; the community disperses. No one will give shelter to Bess except the lowliest among them: Porgy.

Serena’s Room. The community mourns the death of Robbins and raises money for his burial. Porgy and Bess enter the room—together. Serena refuses to take Bess’s money, but Bess explains that it is Porgy’s. Porgy steps forward and, for the first time, leads the community, encouraging them to give money to the saucer. Mr. Archdale enters to investigate the murder, taking away Peter as a witness. Serena mourns her dead husband, and it is Bess’s turn to step forward and lead; she sings a hopeful spiritual that culminates in a ring shout. 

Several weeks later. Jake and the fishermen say a prayer before they depart in their boats. Meanwhile, Porgy enters, transformed by his new life with Bess. Maria, the community’s matriarch, threatens Sporting Life and refuses to sell his drugs. At that moment, a buzzard flies past, portending bad fortune for Catfish Row, but Porgy defies it. Meanwhile, seeing Bess’s positive effect on Porgy, the community begins to accept Bess by inviting her to go to Kittiwah Island with them. Unable to follow, Porgy stays behind.


Kittiwah Island. On Kittiwah, the community’s spiritual prayer is interrupted by Sporting Life, who offers a skeptical perspective on their religion. Serena quickly reprimands Sporting Life and the community. As they depart the island, Crown, hiding out on Kittiwah, reveals himself to Bess; the two are reunited. 

Catfish Row. Jake prepares to leave, despite Clara’s anxiety about impending storms. Peter returns from jail, in disbelief at his treatment there. Meanwhile, Serena calls upon Doctor Jesus to help cure Bess, who has suffered from a strange fever ever since returning from Kittiwah. Serena promises Porgy that Bess will recover by five o’clock. In the meantime, Lily proffers her strawberries and Peter his honey, while Sporting Life taunts the community as the “Crab Man.” At five, Bess awakens. She confesses to Porgy about her rendez-vous with Crown, and she asserts that it is with Porgy she wants to stay. Porgy promises to protect her when Crown returns. Suddenly, the hurricane bell rings, and the community takes shelter from the storm in Serena’s room. 

Serena’s Room. While the storm rages, the community prays. Clara stands anxiously by the window, searching for Jake. A mysterious knocking sound is heard, and Crown enters, looking for Bess, defying God. The community begs God not to listen to his blasphemy. Suddenly, Clara sees Jake’s overturned fishing boat outside the window. Clara throws herself out into the storm. Crown taunts Porgy to follow and save her, but Porgy is not physically able. Instead, Crown dives out into the storm.

The next day. The community mourns the deaths of Jake, Clara, and Crown. Sporting Life has learned that Crown survived the hurricane, but he tells no one. Bess, who has adopted Clara’s child, passes the baby over the grave of its parents, a Gullah mourning ritual. She sings it Clara’s lullaby. That night, Crown returns for Bess, with Sporting Life there to meet him. He steers Crown into the path of Porgy. They fight; Porgy kills Crown.

The next day. Mr. Archdale orders Porgy away to identify Crown’s body. Sporting Life warns Porgy that if a murderer comes near the corpse of his victim, the victim will smile. Terrified, Porgy goes with Mr. Archdale. Sporting Life tries to persuade Bess to come with him to New York. They leave together.

One week later. After so much loss, the community of Catfish Row is unable to return to normal life. Porgy returns from jail eager to see Bess, but the community is hiding a terrible secret. He reveals a red dress purchased for Bess, but Bess, he learns, has left for New York with Sporting Life. Porgy makes the decision to follow her to New York on foot, without the aid of crutches. As they watch Porgy go, the community begins its path to spiritual recovery.