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

By Harry Haun
05 Jun 2012

Grier in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

The First was 1981. You've been a star that long!
DAG: I've been working, let's put it like that. I remember when The First opened, I thought, "This is easy!" I auditioned. It was my first professional job. I got a Tony nomination. I should have 20 nominations by now. And people at the time were, like, "Oh, you should treasure this time." They were right. You make decisions. Things have to be right. For the right production to come along that you are right for — that takes luck, preparation, providence. All of those things have to fall into place. It just so happened that Race came along, and then Porgy and Bess — one right after the other, and I've been able to participate in both. [It didn't hurt, of course, that Richards was lead producer of both of those shows.]

How do you feel about playing Sporting Life?
DAG: I love it. I've never seen the full opera, and, for me, that was helpful because I came with an open mind. I did not come with a preconceived notion of what this character was supposed to be. I'd read all about it — about the original production and what Gershwin's intentions were, about DuBose Heyward and his wife, Dorothy. I read the novel, "Porgy." I did all that work, but never having seen a production kind of allowed me to go and create something and be true to this production.

There's a hard edge in your Sporting Life.
DAG: The arc of the character that I'm trying to create starts like that, but at the bottom line he's a salesman. He's a drug dealer, and he's a pimp. At the end of the day, he purveys in flesh. He is preying on Bess so, when his opportunity comes, he pounces. He's like some people we all know: When you first meet them, they're attractive, they're flamboyant, they're alluring — but, behind closed doors, all of a sudden this side drops, and you're caught. That's exactly what happens here. He waits till she's at her weakest moment, and then that mask drops, and he preys on her. You have to show both sides, I think.

I love that moment when you're in striking distance and you freeze, like a bird-dog on point.
DAG: There are nights — emotionally, through that character — I feel like I'm going to kill her if she says the wrong thing. There are other nights when I feel like I'm in love with her. There are other nights when I despise Bess for not fighting more. The character takes me through all of those things — and, with Audra, she demands that. It's always searching, working, "let's try it a different way."

When I read that Audra McDonald was doing Bess, I knew I had to do this. We've never worked together, never even met. Of course, to my mind, she's a legend. She's Broadway royalty. I also knew I have to do it now. She'd never done Bess before, and this is the production I really wanted to be in. She's the reason I dropped everything and decided I'm going back. I sent [director] Diane Paulus an email that said, "I'd really love to be a part of this production,' and that really started the whole conversation.