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Justice Theater Project’s Version of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess Is a Must-See Show with a Wonderful and Talented Cast

The Justice Theater Project, headed up by Deb Royals, has been producing socially important entertainment for 12 years now. They never fail at both massive jobs — entertaining and driving home the various gaping inequities in American society.

This season JTP’s theme, according to Kristi Vincent Johnson, chairperson of the theater’s board of directors, is “Economic Justice?” They end their season with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a beloved folk opera that features music by George Gershwin, a book and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward, and lyrics Ira Gershwin — with the book newly adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and the musical score adapted by Deidre L. Murray for the show’s 2012 Broadway Revival — adaptations intended to “introduce the work to the next generation of theatergoers.”

Porgy and Bess is a searing indictment of the conditions that black people lived in on the dock area of Charleston, SC, although in 1935 it probably also represented the situation so many black people found themselves in nationwide. The show’s depiction of their experience has been controversial since its first performances.

JTP artistic director Deb Royals chose an excellent cast, and a terrific understudy for Porgy in the person of Juan Isler, who filled in for Phillip Bernard Smith for the performance that we saw. A tip of the hat for his fine work.

Managing such a large cast — with 30 or more often on stage at the same time — requires great experience, especially on a small stage; and the sudden filling and then emptying of the stage, plus including dance movement, which took two choreographers, Sheldon Mba and Aya Wallace. Deb Royals’ artistic flair shone throughout the performance.

The authentic appearing set expresses the utilitarian hovels of Catfish Row and the waterfront, thanks to Deb Royals, and Jeffrey Nugent. Costume designer Brenda L. Hayes added to the authenticity with once colorful, now drab garb, except for Bess’s exhilarating red dress and Sportin’ Life’s fresh new suit. And lighting designer E. Renee Eisenhour and sound designer Cory Arnold create effects that put us right into the story.

A live quintet, under the direction of Ronzel Bell, underpins the musical quality of the Gershwin compositions, enhancing the vocals, guiding the dancing, and providing the segues of scenes.

Bess, the unwilling possession of the Catfish Row bully, Crown, as well as the prime customer of Sportin’ Life, the drug pusher, and finally, Porgy’s true love, is played by Danielle J. Long. Long has an operatic quality voice and training, and delivers a stunning and heart-wrenching performance.

Porgy, as we have noted, is played by Juan Isler, whose gentle voice is mellow and powerful at once. He reflects in Porgy a moral strength and a stalwart character, and makes us want to reach out and hold him.

Crown, the neighborhood bully and general badass, is played by Chase Rivers, who ferociously dives into the part with the zeal of a hungry panther. Somehow, Rivers communicates a serious gentleness beneath that cringeable exterior that is probably his own true personality, but it lends an additional dimension to the internal weakness of this character.

JaJuan Cofield takes on the role of Sportin’ Life, general vice lord of the waterfront who wants to take Bess to New York, where they can both make a lot of money. Cofield brings an appropriate sliminess and verve to the part.

Clara, a Catfish Row resident (who opens the show with “Summertime,” one of the best-known Gershwin pieces), is in the capable hands of Connie McCoy. McCoy gives us a palpable sense of Clara’s love of family when she loses her husband to a storm.

The entire cast is worthy of note, but space constraints make that impractical, so let us simply say it is a wonderful and talented cast that fills out this must-see show.

SECOND OPINION: June 14th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/porgy-and-bess/Event?oid=6617377; and June 10th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Ken Hoover: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8516. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the June 20th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/06/43216/.)

The Justice Theater Project presents THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS at 8 p.m. June 23, 2 and 8 p.m. June 24 and 3 p.m. June 25 at Umstead Park United Church of Christ, 8208 Brownleigh Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina 27617.

TICKETS: $27 ($23 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $20 per person for groups of 20 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-264-7089, thejusticetheaterproject@gmail.com, or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/porgy-and-bess/.

NOTES FROM DRAMATURG CARY PRENTIS JONES: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/about-porgy-and-bess-from-the-dramaturge.

PRESENTER: http://thejusticetheaterproject.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Justice-Theater-Project/29290766458.

VENUE: http://www.upucc.org/, https://www.facebook.com/UmsteadParkUCC, and https://twitter.com/upucc.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.upucc.org/#/contact-usdirections.

NOTE 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, June 24th, performance.

NOTE 2: Aya Wallace will play Bess at the 2 p.m. Saturday, June 24th, performance.

NOTE 3: There will be FREE childcare of potty-trained children during the 3 p.m. Sunday, June 25th, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

Porgy (1925 novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_(novel) (Wikipedia).

The Novel (full text): http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/PORGY/porgfron.html (University of Virginia).

DuBose Heyward (Charleston, SC-born novelist, playwright, and lyricist, 1885-1940): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/dubose-heyward-5141 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuBose_Heyward (Wikipedia).

Porgy (1927 Broadway play): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/porgy-7189 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_(play) (Wikipedia).

Dorothy Heyward (Wooster, OH-born playwright and lyricist, 1890-1961): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/dorothy-heyward-5115 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Heyward (Wikipedia).

DuBose Heyward (Charleston, SC-born playwright and lyricist, 1885-1940): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/dubose-heyward-5141 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DuBose_Heyward (Wikipedia).

Porgy and Bess (1935 Broadway folk opera): http://gershwin.com/publications/porgy-and-bess/ (official web page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/porgy-and-bess-491542 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess (Wikipedia).

George Gershwin (Brooklyn, NY-born composer, 1898-1937): http://gershwin.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/george-gershwin-5813 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006097/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gershwin (Wikipedia).

Ira Gershwin (New York, NY-born lyricist, 1896-1983): http://gershwin.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/ira-gershwin-6435 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0314857/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Gershwin (Wikipedia).

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (2012 Broadway Revival): http://gershwin.com/publications/gershwins-porgy-and-bess-musical/ (official web page), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-490541 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess#2011_The_Gershwins.27_Porgy_and_Bess_.28Paulus_adaptation.29 (Wikipedia).

Suzan-Lori Parks (Fort Knox, KY-born adapter, 1963-): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/suzan-lori-parks-93779 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzan-Lori_Parks (Wikipedia).

Diedre Murray (Brooklyn, NY-born adapter, 1951-): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/diedre-murray-111627 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diedre_Murray (Wikipedia).

Deb Royals (Raleigh, NC director and artistic director of The Justice Theater Project): http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/who-we-are/ (JTP bio) and https://www.facebook.com/deb.royals (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on Amazon.com. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori previously reviewed theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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