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By LINDA BUCHWALD
At the curtain call of a recent preview of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, actor Phillip Boykin gave a dainty curtsy. The crowd was delighted, since they'd just seen him play the burly, brutal Crown. "I want to let the audience know that I'm not really that bad," says the actor, who describes himself as someone who loves to laugh, give, and cook.
So how does this nice guy play a villain eight times a week? For one, he doesn't consider Crown a villain: "[He's] a regular person just like everybody else."
Crown, Bess' lover, sets this classic story in motion when he murders a man and goes into hiding. Bess must find a new home in Catfish Row, a rundown tenement in South Carolina, so she turns to Porgy, a disabled beggar. They fall in love, and there are violent consequences when Crown returns.
To humanize his character, Boykin pictures him as a man he knew from his own childhood in West Greenville, South Carolina. "He would fight you or he would fight for you: You never knew," he recalls. "You had to be careful around him, and if he got a drink or some alcohol in him, he would be so unpredictable."
During workshops for this production, which premiered last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and is currently playing at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, director Diane Paulus asked the cast to give 15-minute presentations on their characters. Boykin created a back story for Crown in which he saw his family get lynched. Now he drinks and does drugs to block out the memories, and Boykin says this motivation "makes it easier to make him a real person and not judge him, but just be him."
Though he's new to Broadway, Boykin's been thinking about Crown for years. He has performed the role (as well as others in Porgy and Bess) since 1996, traveling all over Europe and the United States, as well as Australia, Japan, Russia, and Poland. However, those were all productions of the original opera, while the Broadway version has been reimagined as a piece of musical theatre. Among other tweaks, the score has been adapted and new dialogue has been written for the book.
Boykin says the adaptation lets him go deeper into his character than ever before. In the opera, he explains, he has to project his voice over a large orchestra and hold his body in a way that maximizes sound projection. In this production, the use of microphones makes it easier to make subtle choices. "If you want to grab Bess and sing upstage or go down on your knee and sing to her, you can do that," he says. "You have that freedom to do that without the loss of the voice."
Boykin's history with this show dates back to before he was cast in his first production. When he was a child, he looked through his uncle's albums and saw the Porgy and Bess recording with Leontyne Price and William Warfield on the cover. "I remember thinking at that time that if these African-Americans could make a living singing, then maybe I could, too," he says. "I remember so clearly looking at that album at around 13 years old and wanting to be a singer. And here I am."
Linda Buchwald also contributes to StageGrade.com. She’s on Twitter as @PataphysicalSci.