The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in collaboration with the Newark Public Library will present Philip Roth Unbound, a weekend-long festival that celebrates the life, legacy and work of novelist and Newark native. Over the course of three days, beginning Friday, March 17 and concluding Sunday, March 19, 2023, NJPAC will host a series of events, featuring more than 40 prominent writers, actors, artists, journalists and intellectuals in the nation. Designed to appeal to audiences of all backgrounds, the festival will feature star-studded stage readings, panel discussions and a comedy showcase. The program is designed to explore the significance and impact of Roth’s unique literary legacy, using his writings as a springboard to explore broader questions about life in America today.
A Newark festival in honor of Philip Roth makes perfect sense given he is considered one of the most prominent, controversial and prolific American novelists of his generation—over the past 60 years, notes NJPAC CEO John Schreiber. Additionally, Roth’s devotion to Newark is evident in his work. “He used Newark as canvas for so much of what he wrote,” says Schreiber. “Many of his novels are based in Newark. And while the Newark of Roth’s youth has transformed, its essential qualities remain – innovation, creativity and grit.”
By the time of his death in 2018, Roth had won the Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, and three PEN/Faulkner Awards. He amassed a personal library of approximately 7,000 volumes – books accumulated from 1950 to the present – which he left to the Newark Public Library. His collection comprises books of fiction, history, biography, poetry, drama, cultural and literary criticism, sociology, and psychology.
On opening night of the festival at 7 p.m., actors Matthew Broderick and Peter Riegert will perform a pair of dramatic readings of Roth’s writings that reflect his association with Newark. “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” in which Roth reimagines the fate of Franz Kafka, transforming the deceased Czech writer into his Hebrew School teacher in 1942 Newark. “The Ruthless Intimacy of Fiction” which was written Roth turned 80, offers vivid recollections of the Newark from his youth to his later years of life.
Also taking place Friday at 9 p.m. is “My Newark” which will showcase original stories by contemporary writers who were inspired by Newark, along with several readings by the student winners of the “Your Newark Story” writing contest. Participating artists include playwrights Chisa Hutchinson and Richard Wesley, poets Jasmine Mans and Dimitri Reyes, and author Mikki Taylor.
“I get kind of a bird's eye view of the progress we've made here in this city, and I think this event is an indication of that,” says Hutchison of her hometown. She was tapped by NJPAC to help to organize the “My Newark” program. “There are so many Newark writers who are doing really well for themselves right now. Some of whom couldn't participate this year because they're all doing big things.” Her advice to emerging writers is to “say yes” to partaking in events like the Philip Roth festival, whether that is “serving on a panel or doing satellite activities that keep you plugged into your community.”
A festival highlight includes a dramatic reading (1 p.m. Sunday) of Roth’s national bestseller The Plot Against America, which explores what America would have been like if Charles Lindbergh had beat Franklin D. Roosevelt to become president of the United States and Jews were segregated from the general population. Featured actors include Eric Bogosian, André De Shields, S. Epatha Merkerson, Marjan Neshat, Cynthia Nixon, Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Riegert, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Benjamin Washington and Sam Waterston.
Taking place 6:30 Sunday evening, John Turturro and Ariel Levy will preview select scenes from a new stage adaptation of Roth’s National Book Award-winning novel Sabbath’s Theater, which tells the story of a notoriously indecent puppeteer grappling with lust, loss and meaning. In addition to a post-performance conversation with Turturro and Levy, this event will treat attendees to cocktails, cake and live music in celebration of what would have been Roth’s 90th birthday.
The Philp Roth festival also will convene a number of public debates and discussions on censorship, appropriation and identity politics including “Philip Roth: Reading Myself and Others” (4 p.m. March 17), a discussion about the writers and thinkers who influenced Roth; “Letting the Repellent In” (10 a.m. March 18), a provocative panel on the cathartic power of discomfort and turning outrage into art; “What Gives you the Right” (2:30 p.m. March 18), a conversation about representation, imagination, empathy and exploitation; “Facts, Fiction and Literary Friendships” (7 p.m. March 18), fellow writers and long-time friends reading from fan letters and share anecdotes about Roth; and “American Berserk” (10 a.m. March 19), a panel uses Roth’s writings to discuss what it means to think “historically” as a writer.
Other festival events include a “Philip Roth Bus Tour of Newark” (10 a.m. March 18 and 19); a dramatic reading by actor Morgan Spector of one of Roth’s earliest stories, “Defender of the Faith” (1 p.m. March 18), about a Jewish Army sergeant and the Jewish draftee who repeatedly seeks favors because of their religious bond; and a comedy showcase (8 p.m. March 18), “Stand-up and Challah!” featuring stand-up comedians Eddie Brill, Ariel Elias and Phil Hanley.
“Roth’s take on humanity is fresh, entertaining, engaging and educative. In presenting Philip Roth Unbound,” Schreiber says, “we have the opportunity to invite patrons into a unique and vibrant environment of discussion and examination, not only of a writer’s life and work, but of Newark and the nation as well.”