Catfish Row on the sea frame at Charleston, South Carolina.
A black community living in Catfish Row, a neighbourhood now in ruins. happily pass the evening. Among them are the fisherman Jake, the drug peddler Sporting Life, and Robbins, who are soon joined by Peter, a honeyseller, and Porgy, a crippled beggar who gets about on a goat-drawn cart. Porgy is mocked by his companions on account of his passion for Bess, who is Crown’s woman. Crown is an arrogant and violent stevedore who argues with Robbins during a game of dice and kills him. As everyone makes tracks, Bess, who has refused to escape to New York with Sporting Life, finds refuge in Porgy’s house.
Serena, Robbins’ widow, watches by the corpse of her husband, comforted by people from the community. Porgy attends the funeral with Bess. When the police arrive, Peter, who denounced Crown to take the blame off himself, is arrested. After convincing the undertaker to bury Robbins’ corpse, even though there is no money to pay for his services, the mourners sing a
Jake and the fishermen are getting their boats ready. Porgy, who has been living with Bess for more than a month, expresses his joy by singing. After talking to Frazier, a swindling lawyer eager to squeeze money out of him, Porgy learns from Mister Archdale that Peter is soon to be released from jail.
With preparations for the picnic in full swing, Porgy and Bess declare their love to each other. Bess is invited to join the picnic. Porgy will wait for her on Catfish Row.
After a festive day’s singing and dancing, the community are coming back to Catfish Row. On their way, Bess is seized by Crown, who has been hiding on the island to escape from the police. At first Bess refuses, but hasn’t the strength to resist Crown, and remains with him on the island.
A week has gone by since the day of the picnic at Kittiwah Island. Bess has returned to Catfish Row and is lying delirious in Porgy’s bedroom, comforted
by Serena’s prayers. Bess has confessed to Porgy that she yielded to Crown and has promised to go back to him. But now she begs Porgy to protect her
and he reassures her. The sound of a bell is heard, announcing the approach of a hurricane.
While the hurricane rages, the inhabitants of Catfish Row pray for their companions at sea. Suddenly Crown appears, wanting to reclaim Bess. He challenges Porgy. The hurricane grows louder. Desperate for the fate of her husband Jake, CIara leaves her child in Bess’s care and rushes out into the violent wind. Crown chases after her, but reminds Bess that he will soon be back to take her away with him.
The hurricane has died down. Clara, Jake and Crown have by now been given up for lost. As Bess rocks Clara’s child in her arms, Crown unexpectedly
reappears. He has returned to collect his woman. But Porgy, unseen, leans out of the window, grabs his rival and kills him.
The police are unsuccessfully investigating the homicide of Crown. Summoned to identify the body, Porgy is terror-stricken. Left alone with Bess, Sporting Life makes her believe that Porgy will be doing a long stretch in prison. Then, after offering her some cocaine, he persuades her to leave with him for New York.
After a week in jail, Porgy is released. He comes home to Catfish Row laden with gifts for everybody. But he soon discovers that Bess has abandoned him to go to New York with Sporting Life. So Porgy decides to set off for the big city in search of Bess.