The action takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1930's.
Act I, Scene 1 - Catfish Row, a summer evening.
The aristocracy used to occupy this section on Charleston's waterfront, but now it is a Negro tenement. As the curtain rises the variegated night life of the courtyard is revealed. There is impromptu dancing and singing -Jasbo Brown Blues
; couples stroll about; children play. Clara sings a lullaby to her baby - the lovely Summertime
- and a group of men begin a crap game. Among the players are Sportin' Life, Jake, Mingo, Jim, and Robbins, who enters the game despite the pleas of his wife, Serena, not to play. Jake breaks away briefly, takes the baby from Clara and tries to sing it to sleep with the jaunty A Woman Is a Sometime Thing
. Porgy, a crippled beggar, comes through the gate in his goat cart and joins the crap game. Then Crown arrives with Bess, and the game develops in earnest.
Drunk, Crown gets into an argument with Robbins; a fight ensues, and he kills Robbins with a cotton hook. Crown escapes, leaving Bess to fend for herself. Sportin' Life tries to get her to go with him, but she refuses, and he takes off. Fearing the police, the residents of Catfish Row go quickly into their rooms. Bess starts for the gate, but, hearing a police whistle, she turns back and begins knocking on doors seeking shelter. All but Porgy's remain closed to her, and she enters his room, leaving the court empty except for Serena, who has collapsed over her husband's body.
Scene 2 - Serena's Room, the following night
Robbins' body is laid out with a saucer on his chest. Serena sits disconsolately as neighbors, including Porgy and Bess, come in to comfort her and to contribute money to the saucer for the burial. The mourners sing the spiritual-like Gone, Gone, Gone
, and Porgy leads them in an impassioned prayer for the Lord's help to fill the saucer. A detective and two policemen break in on the sorrowing group, and the detective warns Serena that the body must be buried the next day. He then looks around the room, singles out Peter and accuses him of killing Robbins. The old man protests his innocence, blurting out that Crown did it; the detective moves on to Porgy but gets no information out of him, and Peter is hauled off as a "material witness." The wake goes on, and Serena sings the deeply moving My Man's Gone Now
. A sympathetic undertaker soon enters and agrees to bury Robbins for what money there is in the saucer, Serena promising to come up with the balance. All express their appreciation, and the act closes with Bess, accepted for the first time by the group, leading in the singing of the rousing Leavin' for the Promis' Lan'
Act II, Scene 1 - Catfish Row, a month later, in the morning.
Jake and other fishermen are working on the nets, preparing to take his boat out. Clara begs him not to go, for it is the hurricane season, but he insists, saying that he has to earn money for their son's college education. A happy Porgy comes out of his room singing I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'
. Sportin' Life saunters in and over to Maria's table; she sees he has dope with him and upbraids him for peddling "happy dust" around her shop. And when he suggests that they be friends, she grabs him by the throat, takes a carving knife in her hand and lets him know exactly what he can expect from her - and it's not friendship. "Lawyer" Frazier comes to Catfish Row and manages to sell Porgy a "divorce" for Bess even though it turns out that she had not been married to Crown. Another visitor is Mr. Archdale, who is also looking for Porgy; at first the people are suspicious of this white man, but he wins them over and informs Porgy that since Peter's folks once belonged to his family he'll put up his bond. As Mr. Archdale turns to leave, everyone exclaims in horror at the sight of a buzzard flying low over the court. Porgy explains about this bird of ill omen to Mr. Archdale and expresses his fear of losing his newly won happiness in The Buzzard Song
. As it is the day of the lodge picnic on Kittiwah Island, people now begin to move off to get themselves ready. Sportin' Life sneaks up on Bess and offers her some "happy dust"; as she refuses,
Porgy, a powerful man even though a cripple, grabs Sportin' Life's wrist, almost breaking it, and orders him to leave Bess alone. The frightened dope peddler takes off in a hurry, and Porgy and Bess sing their love duet, Bess, You Is My Woman
. A band of children enters, followed by a crowd heading for the picnic -Oh, I Can't Sit Down
. Bess wants to stay home, but Porgy persuades her to go along and have a good time.
Scene 2 - Kittiwah Island, that evening.
The picnic is about over, but some are still dancing, and Sportin' Life jumps into the middle of the group and sings his worldly-wise ditty -It Ain't Necessarily So
. Suddenly Serena comes onto the scene and, seeing the dancers, puts an end to the fun by calling them all sinners and reminding them that the boat is leaving soon. People begin to pick up baskets and move off in the direction of the dock. Bess, the last to go, is suddenly confronted by Crown, who emerges from the woods where he has been hiding since Robbins' murder. He tells her to stay; she says she is living with Porgy now. She pleads with him to let her go, that Porgy needs her, while he, Crown, can find a young gal -What You Want wid Bess?
But Crown wants only Bess, and as the boat whistle sounds again he seizes her and seduces her; she is once again unable to resist.
Scene 3 - Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn.
Jake kisses Clara good-bye, and the fishermen leave. Bess' voice can be heard from Porgy's room, and it is evident that she is delirious; Serena, Porgy and other Row residents gather to pray for her recovery. Peter returns and is greeted by friends and neighbors.
It is now full daylight, and there is a lot of activity in the court. Vendors, among them the Strawberry Woman, the Crab Man and Peter, the honey man, hawk their wares. Porgy waits patiently for some sign that Bess is better; soon she calls to him and comes out. He tells her he knows that she was with Crown but that it doesn't make any difference to him. Bess says that she has promised to return to Crown, then confesses that although she wants to stay in Catfish Row she fears she'll not be strong enough to resist when Crown comes for her -I Loves You, Porgy
. He promises to protect her, and they go inside together.
The winds begin to blow; a frightened Clara runs in and tells Maria how black the water out by the wharf looks. The sky darkens ominously; the hurricane bell clangs; people hurry inside, and Clara collapses, calling her husband's name.
Scene 4 - Serena's Room, dawn of the next day.
The storm is still raging. Neighbors have gathered together to keep each other company and to pray. Lightning blazes and thunder crashes. The group sings a spiritual-like song; Clara, holding her baby close to her and standing watch at the window, tries to comfort him and herself with a snatch of Summertime
. As the claps of thunder continue, some are convinced that Death is knocking at the door. Just then several real and violent knocks are heard, and despite attempts to hold it shut, the door bursts open and Crown appears. He makes his way over to Bess and grabs her; Porgy rises to defend her but is thrown back onto the floor by the big stevedore. Serena admonishes Crown to behave himself lest God might strike him dead. Defiantly, Crown breaks into a song, a jazz number, A Red-Headed Woman
. Suddenly Clara screams, falling back from the window. Bess rushes over and peers out - Jake's boat is upside down in the river. Clara thrusts her baby at Bess and rushes out. Bess pleads for someone to go with Clara. No one moves. Then Crown, looking at the frightened faces around him, taunts the men, especially Porgy, for their cowardice, opens the door, shouts at Bess that he will return and plunges into the storm. The others return to their prayers.
Act III, Scene 1 - Catfish Row, the next night.
The storm is over, and the residents of the Row are mourning the loss of Clara, Jake and Crown. Sportin' Life comes in and hints to Maria that Crown has somehow survived. He saunters off, Maria goes into her shop, and Bess comes out briefly, singing Summertime to Clara's baby. Now the court is deserted. Suddenly Crown comes through the gate and stealthily makes his way to Porgy's room. He turns his back for a moment, and the cripple catches him with his powerful hands. There is a long struggle, and finally Porgy kills Crown. Triumphantly he cries out, "Bess, you got a man now, you got Porgy."
Scene II - Catfish Row, the next afternoon.
The police and the coroner arrive. The detective tries to get information about Crown's murder from Serena and some of the other women but to no avail. Sportin' Life comes into the court and watches unnoticed as the detective, promising the coroner a witness for his inquest, now calls for Porgy and Bess to come out. Porgy is told that since he knew Crown, he must identify the body. The man is terrified at the thought of looking on his victim's face, but Bess encourages him to go along, suggesting that he just pretend to look at the body. Porgy still resists, and finally the police drag him out.
Now Sportin' Life moves in and tells Bess that Porgy will undoubtedly be put in jail and hints that it could be for a year or two or - and he makes a movement indicating a hanging. He offers Bess some "happy dust"; she spurns it, but he almost forces it into her hand, and now the distraught girl yields, clapping her hand to her face. Then Sportin' Life paints a glamorous picture of life in New York for the two of them -There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York
. She listens. He thrusts another packet of dope at her, but she refuses it and runs inside. He tosses it into the room and slowly starts off. Suddenly the door of Porgy's room flies open, and Bess comes out, totally high. She and Sportin Life, arm in arm, swagger out through the gate.
Scene 3 - Catfish Row, a week later.
It's a lovely morning; children play, and friends and neighbors greet each other warmly as they go about their business. The clang of a patrol wagon is heard, and soon Porgy comes into the court. He is in high spirits and has brought presents for Bess and his friends. People stand around him sad, silent and embarrassed, but he doesn't notice as he gives Lily a new hat and Scipio a new mouth organ and unwraps a dress for Bess. Becoming aware that people are leaving, he tries to draw them back with a story. Then he turns back to the table and unwraps a dress for the baby and calls to Bess. More people move off, and when Porgy catches Mingo sneaking out, he exclaims that this is not much of a welcome for a man who has just been in jail for contempt of court. Then he sees Serena with Clara's baby; his suspicions are aroused, and he becomes more and more distraught as he crawls over to his room, opens the door, calls again for Bess - and realizes she is not there. Only Serena and Maria are left in the court, and Porgy, now frantic, asks over and over, "Where's Bess?" To Maria's comment that the girl wasn't fit for him, Porgy replies that he's not asking for her opinion, he just wants to know where his Bess is, and he sings the poignant Oh, Bess, Oh, Where's My Bess
; Serena and Maria join him, the one condemning Bess, the other trying to explain her leaving. At first Porgy thinks Bess is dead, but Serena tells him, no, she's worse than dead,
she's sold herself to the devil and has gone far away. Alive! Porgy is ecstatic, and learning that Bess has gone to New York, he asks where that is. He's told it's a thousand miles away. He calls for his goat and cart. His friends try to dissuade him, but he is determined. "I got to be wid Bess. Gawd help me to fin' her." Mingo brings the goat and cart in; Porgy is helped in, and everyone joins him in Oh, Lawd, I'm on My Way
as he leaves Catfish Row.
-Used Courtesy of The RCA Records Label,
A Unit of BMG Entertainment