DuBose Heyward’s contributions to American drama are minor but nevertheless important. He was one of the first American dramatists to portray African Americans seriously and sympathetically. The use of African American music in his plays, as well as in the folk opera Porgy and Bess, helped create acceptance of black folk expression as an art form. His influence helped African American writers realize the value of their own culture and experience. Judged by the standards of a later generation, Heyward’s dramatic portraits of the African American community are deeply flawed. The notion of “rhythm” as the defining characteristic of the black spirit is a notorious stereotype, all too representative of Heyward’s baggage of cultural assumptions. Judged by the standards of their own time, however, Heyward’s works were courageous, pioneering efforts, and they played a significant role in bringing the African American experience to the American stage.
Heyward’s plays also provided access to the stage for African American performers. In fact, when Porgy was being cast, vaudeville performers had to be recruited and trained for their roles in a dramatic play because at that time there were no African American performers with experience in serious drama. The blues singer Ethel Waters, who played Hagar in Mamba’s Daughters, was the first African American woman to star on Broadway in a dramatic play.
Despite the pioneering significance of Heyward’s work, he had severe limitations as a dramatist. Virtually all of his critics point to his tendency to rely too heavily on melodrama and to a lack of character development. Many also believe that his critique of white society lacks depth. Nevertheless, Heyward provided the American theater with a positive treatment of an African American community and its inner spirit—a spirit to which Heyward referred as “rhythm.” For him, “rhythm” was the spirit of a people close to their God and the earth and bound together in their community by suffering, hope, and joy.
Porgy was Heyward’s first play. Although Dorothy Heyward wrote a first draft of the play, she asserts that her role was minor, that the play versions of both Porgy and Mamba’s Daughters were nine-tenths DuBose Heyward’s. The basic plot of Porgy, well known because of Porgy and Bess, concerns a summer in Catfish Row, the black quarter in Charleston. The time is the 1920’s (a change from the turn-of-the-century setting of the novel). Porgy, the central character, a crippled beggar, is drawn about the streets on a cart made from a soapbox and pulled by a goat.
The play centers on Porgy’s brief time of happiness and love with Bess. Bess seeks protection and shelter from Porgy after her brutal lover, Crown, murders Robbins at the beginning of the play. Ostracized by the other women of Catfish Row, Bess slowly finds acceptance and a new life with Porgy. From the beginning, though, the couple’s happiness is threatened by Sportin Life, a Harlem drug dealer, and by the possibility of Crown’s return.
Their summer of love comes to an end when Crown, who is hiding on Kittiwah Island, brutally forces Bess to resume her relationship with him (she has come to the island on a holiday picnic with others from Catfish Row). Shortly afterward, during a great storm, Crown returns to the Row. Although people at first believe that he has died in the storm, he actually returns to the Row later that night, determined to murder Porgy and take Bess back. Instead, he is killed by Porgy. The storm also orphans a baby whom Bess claims as her own, after the mother leaves...
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