First appeared in the Tennessee Tribune
followed by newspapers nationwide
and the scholarly journal Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2005.
Philip Rose: A Broadway Journey Against Racism
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), 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 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, “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.”
In 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 which began in the ’40s; her writing this play at 28 based on her own family’s experiences; his passionate fight to produce it; his friendship with Sidney Poitier, and more.
(Photo of Philip Rose, above, by Lloyd H. Slomanson)
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 (which Rose 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, 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 in 2004 at the Schomburg Center by Baltimore historian Louis Fields. Mr. Rose invited me to continue our conversation in an interview, which took place in his home in Manhattan two months later, on a sunny April afternoon.
(Photo credit: David M. Bernstein)
Economics, Music, Justice
In his book, Mr. Rose, born to Jewish parents in 1921, tells of growing up on the 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. 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 (sings a few bars).When I came to New York, I was in a Gilbert & Sullivan company in Greenwich Village, where I met my wife [the actor 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, that racism and every injustice arises 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 – squeezing money out of other people’s lives without respecting them 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,” 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
In 1995 Actors Equity honored Philip Rose with the Rosetta Lenoire Award for “exposing Broadway audiences to a world of diversity.” In his five decades as producer/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.” The show was a Broadway success.
In our conversation, I mentioned to Philip Rose something I love and see as culturally important and big, a statement by Eli Siegel quoted in the production “American Ethics, American Song” by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. Mr. Siegel explained 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? (Sings 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 Heart Knows Better,” the Emmy award-winning public service film by Ken Kimmelman 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.”
After seeing this film, Mr. Rose said, “That’s a marvelous message!” He concluded our conversation by saying, “I’m very, very happy that you’re here and I look forward to seeing some of these things in print.”
Alice Bernstein is an Aesthetic Realism Associate and journalist whose articles appear nationwide. To learn more, visit www.AestheticRealism.org
[Note: Philip Rose and his wife Doris Belack attended the musical presentation Ethics Is a Force!—Songs About Labor, by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. Right after the performance, he said: “Great—better than anything I’ve seen on Broadway in the past 25 years. I’m speaking as a professional. Aesthetic Realism is a wonderful thing!”]