In 1936, as “Porgy and Bess” prepared to end its first tour at Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre, the original Porgy, actor Todd Duncan, and Anne Brown, the original Bess, led their cast in a strike. They refused to perform until theater management lifted its segregation policy. “Porgy and Bess” eventually became the first show to play for an integrated audience at the National Theatre.
Starting Christmas Day, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” an adaptation of the original production, returns to the National Theatre for a four-day run as a part of its national tour.
“It’s a really exciting stop because of the significance of the theater in relation to our production,” said actress Cicily Daniels. “ … Being in the theater where such an important moment happened is very exciting and historic … That’ll be really special.”
The National Theatre stop will also be special for Daniels for another reason. The D.C. run is a homecoming for Daniels, a graduate of Wootton High School.
“I’m so excited,” Daniels said. “People have started to contact me already to let me know when they’re coming … I’m very proud to be in such a wonderful production and have family and friends from my whole lifetime — from all the schools I went — to [come] … I’m so proud they’ll be able to come see this production at the National Theatre.”
In addition to acting in Wootton’s mainstage productions, Daniels also sang in the school’s choir and the choir at her church growing up. Dancing since she was 3 years old, Daniels said she really fell in love with theater when she started doing musicals.
“I also love straight theater but I think there’s something really special about musicals and allowing song to be part of your interpretive expression of your character,” she said.
After high school, Daniels earned a degree in theater from Yale University and moved to New York City where she’s appeared in several shows on Broadway including Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” She’s also made appearances in television shows such as “Ugly Betty” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
Daniels was chosen to join the touring cast of “Porgy and Bess” as one of the women of Catfish Row, the fictional community in South Carolina where the show takes place.
“Porgy and Bess” first premiered as an opera in 1935. It is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy” and play by the same name. Though adapted several times before, this latest incarnation was first presented by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. It was adapted specifically for Broadway and directed by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus, with book adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, and music adapted by Diedre Murray. Paulus is directing the touring production, as well.
The musical, which features well-known songs such as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” tells the story of Bess, a woman trying to escape her painful past and the only man who can help her do so: the brave Porgy.
While in the operatic version of the show the men and women of Catfish Row typically included a chorus of upwards of 30 people, the musical adaptation features just five women and seven men.
“When you’re dealing with [fewer people,] you have a big job,” Daniels said. “The community of Catfish Row is a very tight-knit community in part because they’re representing the world of South Carolina at a time when it was segregated. The only interaction [between blacks and whites] you see on stage is with the Caucasian police officers and detectives. Because of the segregation, they’ve kind of had to form their own community.”
Due to “Porgy and Bess’” historical context, Daniels said she feels a responsibility to bring as much authenticity to her role as possible. To help her and the other actors do so, a dialect coach was brought in to help them master a South Carolina accent. But Daniels said some of the role’s genuineness comes from connection she feels with her character while on stage.
“You have an emotional kind of reaction on stage as an actor in the moment,” she said. “The way the African-American community would have interacted with Caucasians … was very scary at the time because of how the laws were.”
Beyond its historical significance, Daniels said she’s honored to be a part of the “Porgy and Bess” production because of its importance in American culture.
“It’s such an iconic American experience,” Daniels said. “ … There are so many standards from the American musical repertoire that are also from this show, like ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So,’ and the list goes on … It’s such a wonderful opportunity to be able to sing music of this caliber.”