An evening in Catfish Row, an African-American tenement on Charleston’s waterfront, in the 1930s. Jasbo Brown entertains the community with his piano playing (“Jasbo Brown Blues”). Clara, a young mother, sings a lullaby to her baby (“Summertime”) as the workingmen prepare for a game of craps. Among the players are Sportin’ Life, Jake, Mingo, Jim, and Robbins, who enters the game despite the protestations of his wife, Serena (“Roll Them Bones”). Jake breaks away briefly, takes the baby from his wife Clara, and sings his own lullaby, “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” Porgy, a disabled beggar, enters on his goat cart to organize the game. As the game begins in earnest, Crown, a strong and brutal stevedore, storms in with his woman, Bess. He buys cheap whiskey and some of Sportin’ Life’s “happy dust.” Drunk and agitated, Crown gets into an argument with Robbins; a brawl ensues, and Crown kills Robbins with a cotton hook.
Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself until he returns after the heat has died down. Sportin’ Life gives her a dose of happy dust and invites her to join him in New York, but she refuses, and he takes off. Fearing the police, the residents of Catfish Row quickly retreat to their homes. Bess, left alone, frantically knocks on doors, seeking shelter. Finally, Porgy opens his door to her, and Bess tentatively enters. Meanwhile, in the courtyard, Serena collapses over the body of her husband.
Scene 2: Serena’s Room, the following night
Robbins’ body is laid out with a saucer on his chest. Serena sits disconsolately as neighbors, including Porgy and Bess, come in to comfort her and to contribute money for the burial (“Gone, Gone, Gone”). Porgy leads an impassioned plea to fill the saucer with donations (Overflow”). A white detective enters and coldly tells Serena that she must bury her husband the next day, or his body will be given to medical students, for dissection. He suddenly accuses Peter of Robbins’s murder. The old man protests his innocence, blurting out that Crown did it; the detective moves on to Porgy but gets no information out of him, and Peter is hauled off as a “material witness.”
Serena laments her loss (“My Man’s Gone Now”). The undertaker enters. The saucer holds only fifteen dollars of the needed twenty-five, but he agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess, who has been sitting in silence slightly apart from the rest of those gathered, suddenly begins singing a gospel song. The neighbors join in, welcoming her into the community (“Leaving For the Promised Land”).
Scene 1: Catfish Row, a month later, in the morning
Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work (“It Takes A Long Pull To Get There”). Clara begs Jake not to go during hurricane season, but he insists; they desperately need the money. Porgy, content in his new life with Bess, emerges from his home with a new outlook on life (“I Got Plenty of Nothing”). Sportin’ Life saunters over to Maria’s table; she upbraids him for peddling dope around her shop (“I Hates Your Struttin’ Style”). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and sells Porgy a divorce for Bess, even though it turns out that she had not been married to Crown. Archdale, a white lawyer, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. A buzzard flies over Catfish Row – a bad omen – and Porgy demands that it leave him and his newfound happiness (“The Buzzard Song”).
As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the church picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, Sportin’ Life again offers to take Bess to New York with him; she refuses. He attempts to give her some happy dust, but Porgy forcefully orders him to leave Bess alone. Sportin’ Life leaves, and Porgy and Bess declare their love for each other (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”). The neighbors, in high spirits, set off for the picnic (“Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”). Maria invites Bess to join them, but Bess demurs; Porgy’s disability prevents him from boarding the boat. Porgy persuades her to go along and have a good time, and he proudly waves her off as the boat departs (“I Got Plenty of Nothing” Reprise).
Scene 2: Kittiwah Island, that evening
Everyone is enjoying the picnic as it winds to a close (“I Ain’t Got No Shame”). Sportin’ Life entertains the crowd with his cynical views on the Bible (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”), but Serena chastises them for their blasphemy (“Shame On All You Sinners!”). The neighbors gather their belongings and head towards the boat. Bess lags behind, and suddenly Crown emerges from the bushes. He reminds her that Porgy is “temporary” and laughs off her claims of living decently. Bess pleads with him to let her go (“Oh, What You Want With Bess?”) but Crown refuses. He grabs her, preventing her from boarding the boat, and forcefully kisses her. As the boat whistle sounds again, Bess surrenders, unable to resist.
Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn
A week later, Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, one of whom observes that a storm may be coming in. Peter, still unsure of his crime, returns from prison. Meanwhile, Bess lies in Porgy’s room, delirious with fever. Serena prays to remove Bess’s affliction (“Oh, Doctor Jesus”), and promises Porgy that Bess will be well by five o’clock. The day passes, and street vendors hawk their wares (“Vendors’ Trio”).
As the clock chimes five, Bess recovers from her fever. Porgy knows Bess was with Crown but he doesn’t mind. Bess admits she has promised to return to Crown, and though she wants to stay in Catfish Row, she fears she’s too weak to resist him. Declaring her love for Porgy, she begs him to protect her; Porgy promises she’ll never be afraid again (“I Loves You, Porgy”).
As the winds begin to blow, Clara watches the water, fearful for Jake. The sky darkens and the hurricane bell clangs. People hurry inside and Clara collapses, calling her husband’s name.
Scene 4: Serena’s Room, dawn of the next day
The residents of Catfish Row gather in Serena’s room for shelter from the hurricane. They drown out the sound of the storm with prayers and hymns (“Oh, Doctor Jesus”), but Sportin’ Life mocks their assumption that the storm is a signal of Judgment Day. Clara desperately sings to her baby (“Summertime” Reprise). A knock is heard at the door, and many believe it to be Death (“Oh There’s Somebody Knocking At the Door”). Crown enters dramatically, having swum from Kittiwah Island, seeking Bess. The townspeople try to drown out his blaspheming with prayer, but he taunts them with a vulgar song (“A Red-Headed Woman”).
Suddenly Clara screams, falling back from the window. Bess rushes over and peers out; Jake’s boat is upside down in the river. Clara thrusts her baby at Bess and rushes out. Bess pleads for someone to join Clara, but no one moves. Finally Crown, looking at the frightened faces around him, taunts the men for their cowardice. He opens the door, shouts at Bess that he will return, and plunges into the storm. The others return to their prayers.
Scene 1: Catfish Row, the next night
The storm has passed, and the residents of Catfish Row mourn the loss of Clara, Jake, and Crown (“Clara, Clara, Don’t You Be Downhearted”). Sportin’ Life hints to Maria that Crown has somehow survived. Bess, now caring for Clara’s baby, tenderly sings to him (“Summertime”). As night falls on Catfish Row, Crown stealthily enters and makes his way to Porgy’s room. Porgy confronts Crown, and a fight ensues. Ultimately, Porgy prevails, killing Crown. Porgy cries out, “Bess… You’ve got a man now. You’ve got Porgy!”
Scene 2: Catfish Row, the next afternoon
The police and the coroner arrive, seeking information about Crown’s murder. Serena and her friends deny any knowledge of the crime, so the detective orders Porgy to come and identify the body. Bess is distraught, and Sportin’ Life hints that Porgy will either spend years in jail or die by hanging. Offering her more happy dust, Sportin’ Life again invites Bess to join him up north (“There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York”). He thrusts another packet of dope at her, but she refuses it and runs inside. Tossing it into her room, he slowly starts off. Suddenly, the door of Porgy’s room flies open, and Bess comes out, high on happy dust. Arm in arm, Bess and Sportin’ Life swagger out through the gate.
Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later
On a beautiful morning, Porgy is released from jail, where he has been arrested for contempt of court for refusing to look at Crown’s body. He is in high spirits and has brought presents for everyone, including a beautiful red dress for Bess. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems so uneasy at his return. Seeing Clara’s baby with Serena, he realizes something is wrong (“Oh Bess, Oh Where’s my Bess?”). Maria and Serena tell him Bess has run off to New York with Sportin’ Life. Porgy calls for his goat cart, and resolves to leave Catfish Row to find her. He prays for strength, and begins his long journey (“Oh, Lord, I’m On My Way”).