Interview'When you read Roth, you are discomforted'

Even Portnoy wouldn’t complain about Newark gala for provocative author Philip Roth

Actors John Turturro, Matthew Broderick and Tony Shalhoub, plus a slew of appropriately edgy writers, will head up a 3-day literary festival for the hometown hero March 17-19

  • Philip Roth. (Courtesy NJPAC)
    Philip Roth. (Courtesy NJPAC)
  • Exterior view of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. (Courtesy)
    Exterior view of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. (Courtesy)
  • A young Philip Roth visits Newark, the hometown he immortalized in ways both good and bad in many of his novels. (Courtesy of Film Forum)
    A young Philip Roth visits Newark, the hometown he immortalized in ways both good and bad in many of his novels. (Courtesy of Film Forum)
  • Springfield Ave. in Newark, New Jersey, May 1, 1974, a focal point of bitter rioting in 1967. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey)
    Springfield Ave. in Newark, New Jersey, May 1, 1974, a focal point of bitter rioting in 1967. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey)

NEW YORK — Even if you’ve never been there, you might have an opinion about Newark, New Jersey. For some, it is the quintessence of urban decay. For others, it is a vibrant community of creativity and entrepreneurship. For Philip Roth, arguably the greatest Jewish-American author to dip his quill in ink, it was home.

Since most of his work was in some way autobiographical, not much in his vast oeuvre doesn’t touch upon Newark in some way. So for three days in mid-March, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), located in the heart of downtown Newark, will celebrate the hometown chronicler with “Philip Roth Unbound: Illuminating a Literary History.”

The weekend festival will feature readings of his work by celebrities (Matthew Broderick, Peter Riegert, Morgan Spector), two looks at theatrical presentations of his work (“Sabbath’s Theater” with John Turturro, “The Plot Against America” with Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tony Shalhoub, Eric Bogosian and others), plus a slew of writers and intellectuals getting into the nitty gritty of Roth’s books, analyzing them in ways that would cause Alexander Portnoy to complain.

The panels will be audio recorded and will, pending permission, be made available in some kind of podcast form.

The weekend will expand out of NJPAC’s fancy digs (at the intersection of the very-Newark Sarah Vaughan Way and Wayne Shorter Way) for an audio-guided tour of the Newark Public Library, an evening of comedy at a Jewish delicatessen, and even a bus tour visiting locations from Roth’s life and his fiction. (As if we can tell the difference at this point!)

To discuss the festival, we spoke with NJPAC’s president and CEO John Schreiber, a Nice Jewish Boy from Queens who co-produced a series highlighting Israeli talent for the Jewish State’s 70th anniversary in 2018. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

The Times of Israel: Philip Roth’s Newark roots are part of nearly everything he’s written. The main branch of the Newark Public Library recently opened the Philip Roth Personal Library permanent exhibit. Whose brilliant idea was it to hold this three-day festival? Was it you?

John Schreiber: Yes, it was me.

Hey, look at that!

My background is a festival producer. My first festival was 45 years ago in New Orleans, with the Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Was that with George Wein?

New Jersey Performing Arts Center president and CEO, John Schreiber. (Courtesy NJPAC)

Yes, he was my mentor, I worked for him for nearly 20 years.

What I love most about festivals is that one does not have to have a particular expertise of the art form to participate. If one is a jazz fan, a festival is a great place to take up residence! But if not, you can still move around and sample to give you a new appetite.

Years ago I co-created the New Yorker Festival, which gathered writers from The New Yorker magazine and their subjects. It was 20 or so events over three days and it sold like a rock concert! Who knew people would pay money to see Susan Orlean talk about her book about libraries?

We do festivals at NJPAC — a jazz festival, a poetry festival, a festival for Kwanzaa — and I thought Roth’s work is so broad, and so deep, that it deserved this kind of investigation. And then so many people wanted to participate.

I’ve spent a lot of great days and evenings in Newark. But Newark doesn’t necessarily have the best PR. What do you say to people who have never been?

This is one of America’s great arts cities. You can start with us — in a normal year we’ll put on 600 performances, with 250 or so for free events outdoors, or at community centers like the Ahavas Shalom Synagogue, or Bethany Baptist Church. There are dozens of nonprofits across all sorts of disciplines.

It’s a city with a rich cultural backstory — Philip Roth is part of that, as is Sarah Vaughan and Wayne Shorter, Amiri Baraka, or Willie “The Lion” Smith, even Michael B. Jordan. And Jerry Lewis! Paul Simon was born here, too. It’s a gritty city and a global city, and it has as diverse of a population as could be imagined.

Springfield Ave. in Newark, New Jersey, May 1, 1974, a focal point of bitter rioting in 1967. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey)

There’s been a lot of transformation. The Newark from the 1950s was one Newark. The Newark rebellion of 1967 changed things, and other cities certainly recovered more quickly, but the return is flourishing now. For example, right across the street from NJPAC, we’ve built a residential tower — the first ground-up market-rate residential building in 60 years. It’s at 90 percent capacity and we’re building an additional 350 units. It’s new housing without gentrification because much of the land is deserted. And we have a mayor [Ras Baraka] who is also a poet, who is an arts-centric mayor and is very eager to build up the community.

It’s rare that you see finance and the arts working toward a common goal.

We define ourselves as an anchor institution, which means we are hyper-local. Anchors are often “eds and meds,” universities and hospitals. But culture can be anchors, too.

I’ve read almost every book Roth has written — and I think it’s fair to say he never shied from controversy. We live in a somewhat cautious age these days. Was there ever pushback from board members or others within the organization about this event?

Happily, no. No one said, “Don’t do that, it’s tricky and dangerous.” Of course, I said it to myself as we put this together. We were mindful of the potential for this event to become a lightning rod, and possibly create an uncomfortable environment.

So what we did was face it head-on in our curation. For example, one of our panels is called “Letting The Repellent In, Philip Roth and the Art of Outrage.” The program description reads: “The cathartic power of discomfort.” When you read Roth, you are discomforted — no matter how expansive your worldview is, he will write something that will outrage you, right?

For that panel we have Ayad Akhtar, Susan Choi, Ottessa Moshfegh and Gary Shteyngart — these are writers who work in intentionally challenging ways.

Author Ottessa Moshfegh. (Andrew Casey/ Courtesy of NJPAC)

Will there be some kind of “content warning” before these panels?

No. Let the buyer beware. If you buy a ticket for “Philip Roth and the Art of Outrage,” this is a musical where you go in already singing the songs.

There’s a similarly controversial panel in the program, and it had such a marvelously florid title — “What Gives You The Right? A Conversation About Representation, Imagination, Empathy, and Exploitation.”

One of Roth’s best books, “The Human Stain,” is told from the point of view of an African American passing in white society. It was controversial at the time, possibly unpublishable today. Tell me a little bit about deciding what aspects of Roth’s world would get blown out for one of these sessions.

One of our co-producers is Cary Goldstein, who ran publicity at Simon and Schuster, so he really knows this universe. The Roth Estate, when they granted us permission for the festival, said that nothing was off limits, talk about whatever you want.

So beyond programming our celebrity-led readings, we thought, “If Philip were around today, what aspects of his work would he want to get into with his contemporaries and with this next generation of writers?”

By planning that way, I think, we’ve gotten in front of anyone who might say, “How dare you do 13 events around Philip Roth?” Well, Philip Roth can also be an excuse to talk about important social issues. We’ll view the world through the lens of his art.

Believe me, we’ll still get complaints! I mean, we’ve commissioned John Turturro to make a stage adaptation of “Sabbath’s Theater.” We’ve workshopped it, and he’s doing a scene from it on Sunday night of the festival. Now, if you’ve read that book…

Actor John Turturro in an undated photo. (Maarten de Boer/ Courtesy of the NJPAC)

Indeed, this was one of my questions. How the hell can you possibly do that on stage?

Well, yes, I asked this question myself. The book is shocking. And hilarious and touching and… dirty and so on. But John and Ariel Levy did a beautiful adaptation, and got Marisa Tomei to play all the female parts — she’s brilliant in it, taking something shocking and turning it into something endearing and heartfelt. Anyhow, the scene John is doing for us at the festival is where he visits his cousin Fish.

That’s the best part. That’s the best part in pretty much anything ever written.

We’ve had workshops in which supporters of ours, 80 years of age, say they grew up across the street from Philip. And they’ve been charmed by this adaptation, even though it is shocking.

Did Roth ever come to NJPAC?

I’ve been here 13 years, and seven or eight years ago American Masters shot a documentary on Roth. We premiered it here in Newark, and he came. We had a bit of a reunion with some of Weequahic High School students. Cory Booker, who was mayor at the time, gave him the key to the city. But he always maintained his relationship with the library.

Former president Barack Obama, right, presents a National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, March 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

He was very close with a historian named Charles Cummings, who worked out of the Newark Library. When Roth would write about Newark, Cummings would fact-check him. There were people in our Newark community that Philip would send manuscripts to — before the publishers, even. He’d ask if he was getting it right. I’ve met some of the older members of our community, who say, “Philip sent me ‘The Human Stain’ to ask what I thought.” He had a great gift of friendship.

When he died, of course, he made a gift of his 7,000 volumes to the library, and an endowment gift as well, because that’s where he spent so much of his time as a kid. The library was his home away from home.

You’ve got the readings, the panels, the audio tour of the Roth library exhibit — talk to me about the Philip Roth Newark Bus Tour.

A woman named Liz Del Tufo created this tour. She’s lived in Newark forever and was a friend of Philip’s. When she first created it, he actually went on it. She revived it for his 80th birthday, but hasn’t done it since. For the festival, we asked if she’d take it out of mothballs, and it was the first thing to sell out.

What’s your favorite Philip Roth book?

Matthew Broderick photographed at Theatre Row Studios in New York City on January 20, 2017. (Photo by Tawni Bannister/ Courtesy of NJPAC)

The most heartfelt, I feel, is “Patrimony.” It chronicles his relationship with his father. It touched me so deeply. It’s so authentic. He loved his parents. He had a close relationship with them, even with all the scabrous things he wrote over the decades, they never lost their bond. That book is just a wonderful catalog of growing up in Newark — how his father is one of the first Jewish insurance salesman for Metropolitan Life. A great portrait of a striving lower-middle-class Jewish family.

I also love “I Married a Communist,” which some say is a reaction to what Claire Bloom wrote about him — but Philip had an amazing ability to meld fiction and history.

Sean Wilentz, the Princeton University history professor, is on one of our panels. He considered himself something of Philip’s historian, not his Newark historian, but history of the mid-20th century. He helped ground Philip in books like “I Married A Communist” and “The Plot Against America” — even if that one was an alternate history.

John Turturro as a rabbi and supporter of Charles Lindbergh in ‘The Plot Against America.’ (Michele K. Short/HBO)

He certainly fed off of blurring the line, making readers wonder, “Is this really true?” (Naming some of the protagonists “Philip Roth” will do that.) I see one of the panels collects people who knew him. It’s called “Facts, Fiction, and Literary Friendships,” with a lot of well-known people, reading private correspondence. Is this going to be the hot gossip event of the weekend?

There will be readings, but I think it’ll be a collaborative conversation about what it was like to be Philip’s friend. He had a lot of friends! Lisa Halliday, who wrote a wonderful novel somewhat based on her relationship with Roth, is flying over from Italy for this. I think it will be one of the more fun panels.

Who’s next after Philip Roth?

Oh, I have some ideas. But I can’t tell you on the record. For the moment, we’re focusing on Philip Roth.

“Philip Roth Unbound: Illuminating a Literary Legacy” runs from March 17 – 19 at NJPAC, which is walkable from Newark’s main train station for all the New York City snobs who think they are allergic to New Jersey.

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