It must be in the air…I’m getting Porgy and Bess over to Russia, and someone else thought to blog on the topic of the original 1950’s tour.. Right now a National Tour is already on the schedule for next year

Portrait of Leontyne Price in Porgy and Bess
Image from the Library of Congress

by Brigette Feathers

In December of 1955, the cast of George Gershwin’s famous opera “Porgy and Bess” left for Leningrad. This was the first time an American theater troupe traveled to the USSR since 1918. By January of 1956, the Associated Negro Press printed stories covering the troupe’s tour through the USSR, declaring it “a great success.” Sponsored by the US State Department, the tour was supposed to be a good will mission and the ANP went out of its way to print glowing stories full of Russian praise for the show. ANP accounts found in the ProQuest History Vault collection, The Claude A. Barnett Papers: The Associated Negro Press, 1918-1967, Part 3: Subject Files on Black Americans, 1918-1967, Series D: Entertainers, Artists, and Authors, 1928-1965, included details of thronging crowds and traffic coming to a halt whenever the cast of the production went out in public. While the ANP was sure their coverage made the cast sound like celebrities, the Russians’ curiosity might have been mistaken for awe (the population of the USSR did not include many people of African descent). Truman Capote’s account of the same tour, recorded in his book The Muses are Heard, differed significantly from the press reports of the tour. He wrote that the Russian audiences’ reaction to the play was much more mixed than the ANP reported, particularly with regards to the sexual themes explored in “Porgy and Bess.” The juxtaposition of Capote’s scathing commentary to the jubilant praise of the ANP’s press releases makes for an interesting study in contrasts.