Philip Rose: A Broadway Journey against Racism

Article excerpt

When Philip Rose set out in 1958 to produce A Raisin in the Sun, many people--black and white--told him, "You Can't Do That on Broadway!" It is a victory for the theatre and for justice that those words, now the title of Mr. Rose's gripping memoir (Limelight Editions) (2), were wrong. His production of this pioneering play by an unknown, young, black dramatist, Lorraine Hansberry, won the 1959 New York Drama Critics Award.

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. …