Philip Rose: a Broadway journey against racism.
It was the first serious drama about a black family to open on Broadway: the Younger family of Southside Chicago, who worked as servants and yearned for better lives and a home in a nice neighborhood (which in the '50s meant a white suburb). "I think," wrote Ms. Hansberry in a letter to her mother, "it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are--and just as mixed up--but above all, that we have among our ... ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity." (3)
In his book, You Can't Do That on Broadway--A Raisin in the Sun and Other Theatrical Improbabilities, Philip Rose tells of his friendship with Lorraine Hansberry beginning in the '40s at Camp Unity in Wingdale, New York, one of the few integrated resorts in the Catskills; her writing this play at age 28, based on her own family's experiences; his passionate fight to produce it; his friendship with Sidney Poitier; and more.
When the lights went up at the Barrymore Theatre in 1959, segregation was entrenched in the South; racist bombings and lynchings went on. It was before the Civil Rights Act and freedom marches of the '60s. The original cast, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, and Diana Sands, was directed by Lloyd Richards--the first black director on Broadway. A film version followed (co-produced with David Susskind), and forty-five years later, A Raisin in the Sun is a standard--perhaps, the most performed play in regional theatre.
The commercial success of this play means a great deal. Any time we see the feelings of others as having the same depths as our own, it is a victory for ethics: a victory of respect over contempt. As a journalist, I write about why I believe Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the great American poet and philosopher, Eli Siegel (4), is the knowledge which can end racism at last, because it identifies human contempt as the source of racism, and of all injustice. I told this to Philip Rose when we were introduced at the Schomburg Center by Baltimore historian Louis Fields, and he invited me to continue our conversation, which we did on a sunny April afternoon.
Economics, Music, Justice
In his book, Mr. Rose, born to Jewish parents in 1921, tells of growing up on New York's Lower East Side.
Alice Bernstein: You write that as a youth you earned money singing at weddings and funerals. Later you became a bill collector in black neighborhoods.
Philip Rose: Yes, my family moved to Washington, DC during the Depression and I had to get a job. I was only 16 with no skills and took this job of collecting 50 cents or a dollar a week for the credit department stores. They sold to the black community who lived in slums just blocks from the capitol.
So I ended up going into people's homes. Where I was born, I never had occasion to meet black people. In Washington, I was scared, but after a while I was accepted by some of the families and made many friends. I was from a poor background, too--one of five children--and we had discussions about our lives. I learned so much from them about gospel music and jazz. Washington was a very segregated city, but we found ways to go out together. That experience changed my life.
AB: Why do you think you were so eager to know people different from you?
PR: I don't know that I can answer that. I just walked into homes and people were very pleasant. My father, Max Rosenberg, always expressed himself differently from people in our neighborhood. If someone said something derogatory, my father was critical. Some of that got to me, and I thank him for it very much.
AB: In 1945 you toured with an opera company?
PR: Yes, we did Martha. I was in the chorus. When I came to New York, I was in a Gilbert & Sullivan company in Greenwich Village, where I met my wife [the actress, Doris Belack]. A few weeks afterwards, I began touring with a company for a whole season doing musicals.
Civil Rights and Friendship
AB: When you came to Harlem and began singing jazz, were you active in the new civil rights movement?
PR: Yes, immediately. I went to a theatre in Harlem and got to know struggling young black actors, including William Marshall, one of the few to have a career. [He played De Lawd in the 1951 Broadway revival of Green Pastures.] He came to a meeting in my apartment about the young black man down South who was accused--you know the big case.
AB: You mean the tragedy of Emmett Till, who was lynched for whistling at a white woman?
PR: Yes, Emmett Till. Marshall came with a friend--Sidney Poitier. The two most important people in my life have been Sidney Poitier and Lorraine Hansberry. When I finally decided to do A Raisin in the Sun, the first person I called was Sidney Poitier, not only because I wanted him to act in it but because I didn't know where to begin. He got an attorney for me and told me what I had to do. After all these years he's still my best friend. And with all his fame, the friends he had then are the friends he has now.
AB: I thank you for encouraging Lorraine Hansberry to write A Raisin in the Sun, and for producing it. It's definitely a means of knowing the feelings of people from the inside in a way that hadn't been done before. I know there were black productions like the Black Mikado and Green Pastures.
PR: The important difference is that they were black musicals, but the idea of a drama--that's where the title of my book comes from.
Contempt: the Cause of Racism
AB: I'd like to discuss what Eli Siegel explained about racism arising from contempt: "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."
PR: That I agree with entirely. Racism exists everywhere, but in this country it began as a business proposition: slavery. People were brought here and used to pick cotton and anything else. They were owned. A lot of money was made. Contempt is very much a part of the whole battle.
AB: And the profit system itself--making money from other people's lives--I learned from Aesthetic Realism that it comes from the same contempt.
PR: I'm for that explanation. I'll tell two stories which relate this to A Raisin in the Sun. Remember, we're talking of 1959. A man sitting in the best seat in the house (fourth row center) asked at intermission to change his seat. It wasn't broken, there was no obstruction; the house was sold out. He was allowed to stand in the back. I went to his seat and saw a black couple on either side. He didn't want to sit with them. The interesting thing is he stayed to the end. Maybe he learned something. This is where the theatre hopefully has done some things.
Another instance of contempt is when Raisin first played in Washington, DC. Near the end of the play when Walter Lee says, "We have decided to move into our house because my father--my father--he earned it for us brick by brick," (5) the audience, 95 percent white, applauded. The next day, along with a rave review there was an editorial stating that the same people who applauded Walter Lee, went home and kept fighting to keep black people out of their neighborhood. But maybe one or two learned something--which gives cause for hope.
AB: It does. I think consciences were stirred by this play.
PR: The saddest thing about all that I have done is there's no way Lorraine could have known that 45 years later there would be a revival on Broadway. When it first opened, regional theatres didn't do it for years because of segregation: they couldn't house the cast.
Lorraine had a hit and she knew that, but she died of cancer five years after it opened, at age 34. The other side is what she might have done as a writer and as a political person. She was very knowledgeable, and wrote a column for Paul Robeson's newspaper, Freedom. Her opinions were sought as a representative of black people. My dream was to see her as President of the United States.
New Ideas and a World of Diversity on Broadway
Philip Rose was honored in 1995 with Actors' Equity Rosetta Lenoire Award for "being an innovator in the theatre," for showcasing "a vast and rich array of actors and playwrights and for exposing Broadway audiences to a world of diversity." (6) In his five decades as producer and director of dramas and musicals, one can see his tremendous desire to change people's thinking on urgent matters: for instance, racism: Ossie Davis's Purlie Victorious; and Purlie; war: Shenandoah ("I was against the Vietnam war"); women's rights: Sun Flower; old age: My Old Friends, etc.
Another courageous innovation was non-traditional casting. In 1964 he cast the black actress Diana Sands opposite Alan Alda in the two-character comedy/love story, Owl and the Pussycat. When Alex Cohen another producer asked if the script would be rewritten for Ms. Sands, Mr. Rose replied "She's doing it exactly as it was written--a woman who falls in love." After the opening, Mr. Cohen said with sincerity, "I was all wrong." (7) The show was a Broadway success.
In our conversation, I mentioned to Philip Rose something I love from a special matinee, "American Ethics, American Song," performed by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company (8): a statement by Mr. Siegel that the Jewish song wishing good fortune to a bride and groom, Chussen Kalle Mazel Tov (in Yiddish) has the same melody as the blues song St. James Infirmary, coming from black people.
PR: It does? (He sang a few bars of each)--Yes, he's right! It's the same!
AB: Both songs arose from the heart of a people, and the sameness of melody shows that people who've seen each other, sometimes cruelly, as very different are more alike than they know. In their depths, the world is felt in the same way. This is aesthetics, the oneness of sameness and difference--and has large meaning and hope for the races.
I believe the answer to racism can be seen in the Emmy award-winning anti-prejudice film by Ken Kimmelman, "The Heart Knows Better," which ends with this powerful quote by Eli Siegel: "It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations, and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same." (9)
After seeing this film Mr. Rose said, "That's a marvelous message!" He concluded our conversation, "I'm very, very happy that you're here and I look forward to seeing some of these things in print."
People can find out more about Mr. Rose, by reading his important, stirring book You Can't Do That on Broadway.
(2) Philip Rose, You Can't Do That On Broadway!--A Raisin in the Sun and Other Theatrical Improbabilities (New York, Limelight Editions, 2001).
(3) Lorraine Hansberry, letter to her mother, January 19, 1959.
(4) Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by American poet and educator Eli Siegel (1902-78), is based on the principle, "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." To learn more, you may contact the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation at 141 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012, (212) 777-4490, www.aestheticrealism.org
(5) Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, Act 3 (New York, Vintage Books, 1994), 148.
(6) Andre De Shields, Chair of the Committee for Racial Equality, statement quoted in Philip Rose, op cit., 208.
(7) An account of this conversation is in Philip Rose, op cit., 200.
(8) Eli Siegel statement quoted in "American Ethics, American Song," special matinee by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City, 1988.
(9) Eli Siegel, from "The Heart Knows Better," Emmy award-winning, anti-prejudice public service film produced by Ken Kimmelman, President of Imagery Film, Ltd., New York City.
ALICE BERNSTEIN (1)
(1) Alice Bernstein is an Aesthetic Realism Associate and journalist whose articles and regular column "Alice Bernstein & Friends," appear nationwide. Her work appears in Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism--Articles Published Nationwide and Abroad by Alice Bernstein & Others, recently published by Orange Angle Press (NYC). Many co-authors of this book were invited speakers at the 2004 Harlem Health Festival and elsewhere.
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|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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