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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."