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In the courtyard of Catfish Row, Clara sings a lullaby to her child while her husband, Jake, and some of the other men are playing craps. Porgy comes in to join the game; he defends Crown’s woman, Bess, whom the others are gossiping about. When Jake accuses him of being soft on her, Porgy says that he isn’t soft on any woman; he believes his disability is God’s way of saying he is meant to be lonely. Crown arrives with Bess. He is drunk, and when he loses at craps, he provokes a fight and kills Robbins with a cotton hook. Crown runs to hide but tells Bess he will be back. Sportin’ Life, the local pimp and drug dealer, offers to take Bess to New York with him, but she refuses. No one will give her shelter before the police arrive except Porgy.
Later, Porgy and Bess show up at Robbins’s funeral, where his widow, Serena, is leading the mourners. The police enter and arrest Peter as a “material witness.” Serena convinces the undertaker to bury Robbins for less than his usual fee. As the scene ends, Bess leads the mourners in a spiritual as they reluctantly allow her a place in their community.
A few weeks later, Jake and the fishermen are working on their nets as Porgy compares his life to theirs. Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, dispatches Sportin’ Life when he tries to sell his “happy dust.” A chance sighting of a bird of ill omen troubles Porgy, who resolves to defy anything that threatens his newfound happiness with Bess. Sportin’ Life asks Bess again to come with him to New York and tries to give her more dope, which she refuses. Porgy chases him away, and he and Bess sing about their newfound happiness. All except Porgy leave for the church picnic on Kittiwah Island.
At the picnic, Sportin’ Life sings about his own brand of religion. All are getting ready to leave when Crown, hidden in the bushes, calls out to Bess. She tells him that she is Porgy’s woman now, but Crown forces her to stay with him.
Back at Catfish Row, some time later, the fishermen are getting ready to go to sea. Bess, who escaped from Crown and walked eighteen miles back to town, is lost in a feverish nightmare. Peter wants to send her to the hospital, but Serena would rather pray over her. The street fills with people. Bess eventually emerges and explains to Porgy that she wants to stay with him but that when Crown comes she will be forced to go with him. Porgy tells her that she does not have to go with Crown.
The hurricane bell sounds. Everyone gathers in Serena’s room and prays for shelter from the hurricane. There is a knock at the door. Crown enters and tries to take Bess away. He laughs at the frightened townspeople and sings a bawdy song to mock their prayers. Clara sees Jake’s capsized boat and runs out to find him. Bess calls for a man to go out after her. After taunting Porgy, Crown goes.
After the storm, the women are crying for their men; Sportin’ Life teases them and Bess. Crown enters, looking for Bess; he and Porgy fight, and Porgy kills him.
The police and the coroner come to Catfish Row the next morning; they want to take Porgy down to identify Crown’s body. Telling Bess that Porgy will be locked up indefinitely, Sportin’ Life forces some dope on her and leaves more outside her door as he departs. She emerges, ready to accompany Sportin’ Life to New York.
Porgy returns one week later. While he tries to distribute the gifts he bought with the money he made playing craps in jail, he learns that Bess has gone off with Sportin’ Life to New York. He decides to leave Catfish Row forever and find her.