Written by David Levy
For theater lovers, there’s only one place to be tonight: the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, where the American Repertory Theater will begin previews for their new version of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Although tonight will be the first time this production unfolds before a paying audience, its advantages and defects have been publicly debated for the last two weeks on theater chat boards, on Twitter, and most notably in the pages of the New York Times.
At the heart of the debate are the changes being made to the original text of Porgy and Bess, the 1935 “folk opera” with music by George Gershwin, book and lyrics by Dubose Heyward, and additional lyrics by Ira Gershwin, based on Heyward’s novel Porgy and his subsequent stage adaptation (written with his wife Dorothy). For this new production, the Heyward and Gershwin estates reached out to the A.R.T.’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, and asked her to create a new Porgy & Bess in the mold of a Broadway musical, with an eye towards contemporary audiences. She enlisted Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre Murray.
The debate exploded following a New York Times piece about their process provocatively titled “It Ain’t Necessarily ‘Porgy’.” The fire was fanned when Stephen Sondheim added his voice to the debate.
Amidst all the sound and fury, I found myself thinking back to the early days of Mayyim Hayyim. When this mikveh opened, it was an experiment that could have been framed in similar terms to this current production of Porgy and Bess: what would it look like for a bunch of women to take something from the past that has great value, but also some problematic aspects, and recreate it for the current generation? What if the primary shapers this time around were women?
And just like what’s happening now with Porgy and Bess, people had Opinions with capital Os. And just like what’s happening now with Porgy and Bess, many of those Opinions were formed without any first-hand experience of what was actually going on in the mikveh. I remember thinking myself that I didn’t understand why anyone would want to use a mikveh to mark a divorce or cancer remission or bat mitzvah. That wasn’t what the mikveh was for, I thought!
But then I visited Mayyim Hayyim. I saw the space and began to understand why this mikveh was different from the hole-in-the-wall mikva’ot I had seen elsewhere. I spoke to women – and men – who had found spiritual fullness in the act of repurposing the ancient ritual of immersion for their own needs. And I remembered that there were still hundreds of other mikva’ot around the country still doing what they had always done. Mayyim Hayyim added to the story of mikveh, making it accessible to a new segment of the community, without damaging what was already working just fine for a different segment of the population.
Tonight, I will be in the very first audience to see this edition of Porgy and Bess. I hope I’ll like it. It’s possible I won’t. But I’m glad that I’ll get the chance to see for myself.
David Levy is managing editor of JewishBoston.com. He is a member of the board of directors of Keshet, a Boston-based non-profit working for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life. He holds a bachelors degree from Harvard University and masters degrees in Jewish studies and Jewish education from Hebrew College. Follow him on twitter: @itsdlevy.