Playwright-to-be 'just startled me,' producer recalls

November 11, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In 1949 -- before he ever imagined becoming a Broadway producer -- Philip Rose was working as a singer at a family resort called Camp Unity in Wingdale, N.Y. Among his co-workers was a young waitress named Lorraine Hansberry.

"There was a thing at the camp where on Sunday afternoons people would get up and discuss whatever they wanted to, and she took over one of those discussions," says Rose, author of the recently released theatrical memoir You Can't Do That on Broadway! (Limelight Editions, $25). "She just startled me -- the gamut of her knowledge and the way she could express herself."

That afternoon, Hansberry and Rose began a discussion about race that continued for years, reaching its pinnacle a decade later when Rose produced Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. It was the first Broadway play written by a black woman, the first directed by a black director (Lloyd Richards) and the first serious Broadway drama about contemporary black life.

Yet it wasn't until opening night that Rose truly understood the landmark nature of Hansberry's domestic drama. "When I walked into Sardi's with Lorraine that night after that performance and she was greeted as she was by this largely white, upper middle-class audience, we just sensed that something was taking place that was going to change something. Up to that moment I was so busy trying to raise the money and involved in the production, I didn't have time to think about it from that standpoint. Up to that night people were telling me up that I was crazy," Rose, 80, recalled from his New York apartment.

Among the delights of Rose's book, subtitled "A Raisin in the Sun and Other Theatrical Improbabilities," are facsimiles of primary documents including letters, telegrams and contemporary reviews. "Without them I probably would never have written the book," the producer says of his extensive collection of source material.

One of his favorite documents is a scathing mock review Hansberry wrote in anticipation of a negative notice from tough, legendary Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy when Raisin played a pre-Broadway run in that city. Hansberry's typewritten satire, which has never been published before, includes the pronouncement: "Whatever their intent, the producers of A Raisin in the Sun have successfully repealed the emancipation proclamation for this viewer at least. For if the current tenant of the Blackstone [Theatre] truly represents the negro dream of America then the KKK cannot be far behind."

Two pages later, Rose reprints Cassidy's actual review, and the reader can see how unfounded Hansberry's fears were. "A Raisin in the Sun is a remarkable play, acted to the Blackstone hilt of its warm heart, proud backbone, and its quicksilver funnybone by a gifted cast," Cassidy wrote.

Rose went on to produce such shows as The Owl and the Pussycat (which helped pioneer the practice of nontraditional casting on Broadway) and the musical Shenandoah (which won him a Tony Award as co-author of the book). He says he almost called his memoir How Did It Happen? "Through the years people have asked the question, how did it happen that you of all people -- meaning this young Jewish kid from the Lower East Side who knew nothing about producing theater -- produced [Raisin]?"

The truth is, he says, if he hadn't been such a neophyte, "I might not have made up my mind quite that quickly." Once he did, however, he never wavered, and the outcome changed Broadway history.

(Rose will speak about his book after the Nov. 24 matinee of A Raisin in the Sun at Center Stage. His talk is free and open to the public.)

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.