This interview was originally broadcast on May 22, 2012. David Alan Grier plays Sporting Life in the opera Porgy and Bess, which closes on Broadway next month. Porgy and Bess won two Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
In 1935, George Gershwin brought the script for his folk opera Porgy and Bess to the opera's original cast, which was entirely made up of African-American actors. "[In the original], every other word was N-word this, N-word that," says actor David Alan Grier. "[And] there's a very famous story: Al Jolson really wanted to play Porgy, in blackface."
Grier, who plays Sporting Life in the new Broadway adaptation of Porgy and Bess, says the original company got together and told Gershwin that changes needed to be made. "[They] said, 'Look, we have to cut out these racial epithets,' " he says. "So the piece has always evolved and changed. ... There is a lot of history surrounding this piece and infused in the piece that's very interesting to me."
The version of Porgy and Bess that Grier stars in is not without its own controversy. Before the adaptation premiered, Stephen Sondheim wrote a letter in The New York Times accusing the creators of arrogance and dishonoring the creators' original intentions. The next day, Grier went to his fellow cast mates for a meeting.
"And I said, 'Listen, I don't know who this Steven Soderbergh is, but I've never liked his films, and I didn't even know he was an opera fan,' " he says, laughing. "So I told Audra [McDonald, who plays Bess] that, and she fell down laughing."
Getting more serious, Grier says Sondheim's letter didn't get him down.
"I was titillated and excited because that is what theater is supposed to do," he says. "I didn't think people would get this excited and heated over a simple musical production. I want to be in that production. I think there were 400 comments on that article. At the end of the day, it was a letter in response to an article about a production that no one had seen and had not even opened. At the end of the day, I felt confidence in what we were doing."
Performing on Broadway isn't unusual for Grier, who has been in five Broadway productions and got his start playing Jackie Robinson in The First immediately after graduating from the Yale School of Drama. He didn't grow up performing, though. As a kid growing up in Detroit, he says he didn't think much of musicals.
"I started acting at the University of Michigan in my sophomore year," he says. "A friend of mine had his own theater company, and he jumped me in like I was in a gang. And once I came in, it was just that simple. For the first time in my life, I felt, 'This is a career, this is a life that I think I can grow old doing.' It was love at first sight. I loved being on stage and reading these plays. It was great."
On how he played the character of Sporting Life
"I didn't want to play it on one level. Meaning, I didn't want to hit the stage like Snidely Whiplash going, 'I have this drug, you take it, and we'll go to New York.' It was more smooth and trying to build a real seduction, which is, he comes on, he's funny, amusing, always there, and as the stakes change, his argument changes. The way he talks to Bess when no one else is around is different than how he talks to her with the community around. I think the character of Sporting Life is a salesman so he has to be flamboyant, the life of the party. He's fun to hang out with, but you just don't want to owe him any money. Because once you get on that side of him, he changes."
On his father's obsession with the opera
"Why would he be obsessed with Porgy and Bess? My father contracted polio on a troop train in Korea. He's a retired psychiatrist. And all of a sudden, I go, 'Of course. Now I understand. He's seen all these productions of Porgy and Bess, and he ultimately came to the show. Which, boom — this was him, in a lot of ways, to have this opera depict [Porgy] on stage. In a lot of ways, this was an aspect of him that he saw, and it became infused with so much more for me."
On his father's seminal book Black Rage
"He was an angry black man. At the heart of Black Rage, a lot of it was about the residual effects of racism, and in particular, the effect slavery has had on the African-American psyche and our community to this day."
On what his father taught him about being African-American in the U.S.
"One time in 1965, our family all piled in the car and we drove across the country to California. The car broke down in the salt flats. I remember going to a gas station and my father gets out, because our air conditioner was broken. He must have been in there for 10 minutes. He got in, ashen-faced, and quietly said, 'Everyone stay in the car. They don't like Negroes here.' That was a rude awakening.
"We had to spend the night in this small desert town. My father and mother told us not to play in the pool, to stay in the room. My brother had a skateboard. I remember we wanted to play. It was bewildering. It was not psyche-shattering because I didn't grow up in that kind of world. My grandmother was born in 1900, and she would regale me with tales I call Little House on the Prairie tales, but they were tales of segregated and racist America growing up in Alabama and Mississippi, where she came from. ... Our household was infused with black history. I grew up in a home and in a world in which you can do anything. We were all expected to go to college. My father was a doctor."
On the snaps from In Living Color
"Damon Wayans and I would rate movies using snaps. The fun of In Living Color was exposing black culture, and in that sketch, gay culture, that I don't think America had ever seen at that point. I had already done Dreamgirls on Broadway, and being in a musical and working with other performers who were gay, I was privy to that vocabulary backstage. They were being themselves. So a lot of it was hijacked from what I heard in the theater and what was permeating around. Now at that time, if a gay person was going to read you — to tell you off — it was always accompanied by snaps. Now I don't know if it was a gay thing, but it was also a very black thing."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The final performance of "Porgy and Bess" is September 23rd. So before time runs out, we're listening back to interviews with a couple of the stars. David Alan Grier was nominated for a Tony for his performance as the drug dealer and pimp Sporting Life. He gets to sing two of the songs that have become pop standards. "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."
David Alan Grier first became known for his work on the sketch comedy TV show "In Living Color." He got his start on Broadway in a musical about Jackie Robinson, which got him his first Tony nomination. The second was for his performance in the David Mamet play "Race."
Here's Grier as Sporting Life trying to convince Bess to come with him to New York and leave Catfish Row and Porgy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A BOAT THAT'S LEAVING SOON FOR NEW YORK")
DAVID ALAN GRIER: (as Sporting Life) (Singing) There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York. Come wid me, dat's where you belong, sister. You an' me kin live dat high life in New York. Come wid me, dere you can't go wrong, sister. I'll buy you de swellest mansion up on upper Fifth Avenue. And through Harlem you'll go struttin', you'll go astruttin', an' dere'll be nuttin' too good for you.
(as Sporting Life) (Singing) You'll dress the rich in silks and satins, just like the Paris styles. And all the blues you'll be forgettin', you'll be forgettin', there'll be no frettin', just nothin' but smiles. Come along wid me, dat's de place, don't be a fool, come along, come along.
(as Sporting Life) (Singing) There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York. Come with me, dat's where you belong, sister. That's where you belong. Come on, Bess.
GROSS: David Alan Grier, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GRIER: Thank you.
GROSS: Really loved your performance on the show.
GRIER: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, I interviewed Audra McDonald recently about playing Bess, and she said that, you know, she always loved the song "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" as a song, just an independent song, and always though oh, it's about this guy who's inviting a woman to go to New York and lead a more glamorous life. He wants to buy her things. Isn't that great?
But hearing it in the show, you know, this guy is really trying to seduce her into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. He wants to be her pimp and control her. Did the meaning of the song change for you when you joined the cast and started singing the song?
GRIER: Absolutely. My relationship to "Porgy and Bess," coming into this production, was one of I've never seen the opera. I have sketches of the movie in my head. So remembering those patches of the movie as a child, I thought happy dust was like fairy dust, you know, like is a magician, Sporting Life, is he - you know, what exactly is he doing, because I was too young to really understand who and what this man was, this character was.
GROSS: What meaning did "Porgy and Bess" have for you when you were growing up? How aware of it were you?
GRIER: You know, this whole production has been so strange. You know, I was talking to my brother, my older brother about "Porgy and Bess" when we first started. We did a workshop in New York, and he said, well, you know dad was obsessed with "Porgy and Bess," and I'm like what?
I'm the youngest of three kids. So I'm 55 now, which means when the movie came out, I was really little. I was like, what, three years old. So I had - that's what I mean, I don't have any memory of it. I've never seen the opera. And he goes oh, yeah, dad loves - I'm like: Why would he be obsessed with "Porgy and Bess"?
And he goes: Well - you know, my father contracted polio on a troop train in Korea. He's a retired psychiatrist. And all of a sudden, it's like this huge thing appears to me, and I go, well, of course. Now I understand. He's seen all these productions of "Porgy and Bess." And we started corresponding by email, and he ultimately came to the show, which was boom, this was him.
In a lot of ways, to have this opera depict this man suffering from polio on the stage, a lot of - in a lot of ways, this was him, this was an aspect of him that he saw, and it became infused with so much more to me.
GROSS: So you're saying that your father, who had polio, related to Porgy because Porgy is crippled?
GROSS: Porgy didn't have polio. Like, he was...
GRIER: No, but I mean, it's - you know, it's not like it was his story.
GROSS: Right, just wanted to make that clear, yeah.
GROSS: So you didn't even make that connection until your brother told you after you started to work on "Porgy and Bess"?
GRIER: No, because I didn't remember. I didn't remember. Yeah, I was a little kid. I did not remember. But my brother is older, and he goes: Oh, yeah, when the movie came out, daddy came, you know, home - and through our correspondences, he talked about all these other productions that he'd seen, the opera and now who's playing Bess and how are we doing it differently.
I mean, he was all involved. But it also helped us all because, you know, as a child, I never saw my father as anything other than a normal and vital man. You know, he had a severe limp because he caught polio, contracted it on one side. He was in an iron lung.
He was in crutches, in a wheelchair, and he basically came finally, with this brace which is the exactly like the brace that Porgy wears at the very end when he saves up his money, and he finally gets this brace for his leg to help him walk.
That's what my father - that's what I played with as a kid. I played with his brace in the house, you know, when I was growing up.
GROSS: Was it a relief to know that your father loved "Porgy and Bess"? And here's why I ask: Your father is the co-author of a very important, widely read book called "Black Rage," which was published in 1968, and it's all about all of the issues like, you know, slavery, oppression, discrimination that held back and pushed down African-Americans and what the source of that day's anger was.
And some people see "Porgy and Bess" as being stereotyped. Some people see it as being this, like, extraordinary achievement that gave both a Broadway stage and an opera stage to African-Americans who would have never gotten such fantastic roles before.
GROSS: So did you know how your father - like in those two...
GRIER: I didn't. I didn't know all of that because that was a conversation - that was the exact conversation when he finally was able, he was well enough to travel to see the production. We went out for lunch, and I said exactly that: I didn't know your relationship to "Porgy and Bess," if you felt it was racist, or if you felt this was a great American opera, blah, blah, blah.
And he looked at me like I was crazy, and he was like this is, you know, America's greatest opera. Are you kidding me? From my research, when Gershwin first brought this piece to his African-American cast, which he himself insisted only be played by African-American artists - why do I bring this up? Because there's a very famous story. Al Jolson really wanted to play Porgy in blackface, and...
GROSS: I was so amazed when I heard that.
GRIER: Well, there you go.
GROSS: Just thinking what that would have been like, how bizarre that would have been.
GRIER: Right. Well, so...
GROSS: How wrong that would have been.
GRIER: Right. I mean, we're getting into a lot of the controversy of our production. As soon as Gershwin brought this to this group of African-American artists, the original company got together with him and said look, we have to cut out these racial epithets. They are offensive to us, and we, as artists, will not do this.
So the piece has always evolved and changed. It changed from there, and then this company said we will not play in segregated houses. So as they went from Boston to Washington and started that original tour, the company was like unless you desegregate the house, meaning everyone sits together, it's not going to be done. So there is a lot of history surrounding this piece that's very interesting to me.
Quick story. My father has been very ill.
GROSS: I'm sorry.
GRIER: He's not able to travel to see "Race" which I know he would've loved. Why? Because I was a screaming black man. He would've loved it. He finally came to see "Porgy and Bess" and I asked Audra and Norm to come out. As they came out, my father grabbed Audra's hand and just began to weep.
Members of the company that I'd asked came out and surrounded him and hugged him and he kept telling Audra, you have made my life so rich. So it was a wonderful, wonderful moment and I'm so glad that he got a chance to see "Porgy and Bess."
GROSS: God, that is really moving.
GRIER: Oh, it was - it was great. It was great.
GROSS: My guest is David Alan Grier. He plays Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" which ends its Broadway run September 23rd. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with David Alan Grier. He plays Sportin' Life in the Broadway production of the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." OK, so you're not an opera singer, but in "Porgy and Bess," the character of Sporting Life is usually, not always, but often not an opera singer. He's been played by Cab Calloway, by John Bubbles, by Sammy Davis. Did you feel like you were up for, you know, a singing role?
I know your first role on Broadway was in a musical about Jackie Robinson, with you in the leading role, but I presume it's been a while since you sang seriously on stage?
GRIER: You've got to sing, I mean, you know. Diane put me in the room. I sat - Phillip Boykin would sit behind me, and he would sing my parts. We started with the most difficult, "Killing of Robbins," which is just so vocally and musically challenging. I was totally lost, but he said look, you can do this. It's fine. It's wonderful. It was very challenging, but you just jump in. They cast me. Someone believed in me.
GROSS: Wait, the killing of - I'm trying to remember what you sing there.
GRIER: Well, "The Killing of Robbins" is when Crown comes in, in the very beginning of the opera, and he kills Robbins. You know, there's a crap game and then a fight.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right. Right.
GRIER: Well, vocally, there's all this counterpoint, point, counterpoint, you wait 12 bars on the flatted fifth, David you come in, you hold this note once, you go out, you count another seven measures, you come in - oh. You know, all these vocal things. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming. It was overwhelming.
But so we're all working on this stuff, and we work for a few weeks, we put it together, and it's so intricate. Funny, at the end of the day, Diane goes look, we're going to clear this up. And she cut my parts. It was in the staging, and I very gallantly said if you insist, I will adhere to your artistic choice.
But inside I was like thank God, I don't have to sit there and count. But I'm telling you, it was like, you know, one, two, three, four, five, oh.
GRIER: Kill him.
GRIER: (Singing) Is he dead? Oh, Crown is very drunk. He's very, very, very drunk, oh. You know, so - and running around the stage. I never got the part right, and I would stand behind Mingo, and he would - if he turned his face right, I could copy off of him like a kid in school. I could see where we were supposed to come in because his part was the same as mine. It was very - yeah, it was wild. It was wild. But we got through.
GROSS: Well, let's hear something that you are in. Let's hear one of the most famous songs from the show, "It Ain't Necessarily So," which is Sporting Life's song, and set the scene for us. This takes place at a picnic on a little island that all the people from this little fishing village are there. Bess is there. Porgy has stayed home. And you're kind of like preaching a sermon, and it's a pretty religious community. So set the scene for this song.
GRIER: All right, well, part of - you know, on the picnic, it's very pivotal for Bess because she is being integrated and accepted into this community, a formerly scorned woman. The women of the community have invited her out, and they're embracing her. You know, we're with Porgy now, you are one of us.
As in every community, there is a very religious person there who's admonishing everyone don't drink, don't gamble, you should all be in church. You remember that, you know, this is how we're supposed to live as good Christians. And what motivates the song is Sporting Life making fun of her, making fun of Serena, like yeah, right, that's not the way it is, it's not, this is garbage.
GROSS: OK, so we're going to hear this. It starts with Serena, and then, you know, Sporting Life comes in right after. David Alan Grier, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
GRIER: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")
GROSS: That's David Alan Grier from the cast recording of the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." Our interview was recorded in May. The final Broadway performance of "Porgy and Bess" is September 23rd. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.