THE LEADING MEN: David Alan Grier, the Tony-Nominated Sporting Life of Porgy and Bess

By Harry Haun
05 Jun 2012

Grier and NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
photo by Michael J. Lutch

It's a wonderful role for you. It utilizes your comedic qualities as well as your acting chops. I always thought of you as an actor first, but comedy is a comfortable turf for you.
DAG: I love the part — plus I get to sing Gershwin, too [cast-iron showstoppers like "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon"].

I noticed Sporting Life is very skittish around Mariah, the matriarch of the community, who keeps shooing him away.
DAG: A lot of that was worked out in the process of rehearsal, trying to decipher what our relationships were. You know the talk that actors do: Do we know each other? It's a very small community, and, like any small community or neighborhood that you grew up in, you know who the mean guy is, you know who the nice lady is, you know the rich people who live two blocks away, the real poor people you give food to, the crazy lady, the family who lost a son in the war. Everybody knows everybody, and you just know each other's business.

I hear from a lot of people who come to Porgy and Bess how rich the ensemble-playing is. We spent a lot of time talking about how, in this community, you know each other's business. So they know me. I assume Sporting Life grew up in Catfish Row, left, turned into this person. He's That Guy, and he's coming back intermittently to pollute their community — sell drugs, sell women, sell bootleg liquor. That's what he does. People know him, and Mariah knows him better than any of them.

Do you mind playing sinister?
DAG: No. Every actor wants to play a bad guy. I remember Norm Lewis saying to me, "Oh, you'd be a great Porgy." And I'm, like, "Naw, I want to play Sporting Life." I love the songs he gets to sing. When we started unpeeling this opera, Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Diedre Murray, who adapted the music, were going, "We don't know what will be recitatives, what will be spoken or what will be sung," so we started learning all the recits….and then we started peeling it apart and discovering what works, dramatically. They were all so beautiful. You know, Gershwin is part of American Popular Song's DNA, so when you hear these musical themes, when you hear his musical ideas in each and every recit, it's like the history of American music.

I remember walking into a room where Phillip Boykin was at the piano and Diane and Diedre and Suzan-Lori Parks all had their eyes closed, with their hands over their hearts, smiling, and he's singing every recit, and I'm thinking, "This is an opera! I'm doing an opera!"

Read the earlier Playbill Leading Men interview with Phillip Boykin, a 2012 Tony nominee for playing Crown.

Were your entrances and your exits choreographed?
DAG: No. I put that walk in, but Diane very much said, "The music is changing here. You've got to get from here all the way down center here. You make this entrance." She gave me the space to fill that time. It came about through the process, having to trust in them, [with me] saying, "It's only going to get bigger so you're going to have to tell me when to cut it off."

It's a slither, you know.
DAG: Yesssssss! Yesssssss!

Read the earlier Playbill Brief Encounter interview with Joshua Henry, who plays Jake in Porgy and Bess.