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The "Philip Roth Unbound" Festival is set for March 17-19 at NJPAC

The Philip Roth Unbound Festival runs March 17-19 at NJPAC in Newark
The Philip Roth Unbound Festival runs March 17-19 at NJPAC in Newark

Philip Roth Unbound: Illuminating a Literacy Legacy, NJPAC's three-day celebration of the iconic Newark-born writer will take place on March 17-19 in Newark.

John Schreiber, the President and CEO of NJPAC and acclaimed writer Francine Prose join WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle to talk about the significance of the festival on what would have been Roth's 90 birthday weekend.

Acclaimed writer Francine Prose and NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber join WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle to talk about the Philip Roth Unbound Festival
Doug Doyle/zoom
Acclaimed writer Francine Prose and NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber join WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle to talk about the Philip Roth Unbound Festival

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel American Pastoral in 1997, the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 1998, and, in 2002, the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. The controversial Roth received two National Book Awards and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, and won three PEN/Faulkner Awards. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004,” and was later adapted by David Simon for an HBO miniseries. In 2011 he was given the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. Roth died in 2018.

Francine Prose will be participating in the Sunday March 19 panel discussion American Berserk: History, Democracy and the Relentless Unforeseen, that also features historian Sean Wilentz, fellow author Darryl Pinckney, and literary critic Parul Sehgal in a timely conversation, building on Roth’s belief that history is fragile and unpredictable.

Francine Prose was inspired by Philip Roth's novels
Frances Denny
Francine Prose was inspired by Philip Roth's novels

Prose remembers reading Roth's work when she was a youngster growing up in Brooklyn. She's always appreciated Roth's unique approach to telling stories.

"Almost every novel is a historical novel. The nature of a novel is that it takes place at a certain time and at a certain place. But, several of Philip Roth's novels are really about history. I mean, The Plot Against America is about a kind of mythical inventive history where if things took a tiny little turn, every thing would have been different. They're not historical novels in the way we often think of as historical novels. They're not about what kind of shoe laces people wore at a certain time or what their cars were like. There about these kind of big movements in people's lives, big political movements, whether it be the invented Lindbergh victory or the '60's of which American Pastoral is so much about, the characters in the novel are shaped about by these historical currents and historical forces."

John Schreiber says historian Sean Wilentz would get regular fact-checking phone calls from Roth.

"From the work, it's clear Philip was a great student of history. And certainly with , the talk about what America would have been like if Lindbergh had run, if Lindbergh weren't arrested, if the Jews had been sent out to Kansas. You know I think of 2016. If a certain number of votes had changed, the world would be a much different place than it is today. So Philip was way ahead of his time in many ways."

John Schreiber is the President and CEO of NJPAC in Newark
Shine Portrait Studio
John Schreiber is the President and CEO of NJPAC in Newark

Schreiber is excited about the lineup for the three-day festival. Why did he want to do this?

"Because of Philip's relationship to Newark and because of the unique quality and resiliency of his work, it just felt like he deserved it. About 25 years ago, I co-created the New Yorker Festival, which was an opportunity for New York writers and their subjects to get together. I produced that festival for a couple of years and we discovered this enormous appetite for folks that love literature to engage with it in-person in a really fun and concentrated way. So, we took a page from that festival in imagining a Philip Roth Festival. There's so much about his life and his work that resonates today and is fresh, engaging and worth concentrating on that's ever been."

Prose says reading Roth's novel didn't directly influence her as writer, but she certainly was impacted by the Newark icon.

"He was an inspiration, mainly because he was such a good writer. His senses were so great and he was so energetic, so determined to get it right in any number different ways."

Newark's own Philip Roth died in 2018
Bernard Gotfryd, Library of Congress
Newark's own Philip Roth died in 2018

At the center of the Philip Roth Unbound Festival will be a one-time dramatic reading of Roth’s bestselling novel The Plot Against America featuring some of the most esteemed actors working today in a monumental performance. On Sunday, March 19, at 1PM, actors Sam Waterston, André De Shields, Tony Shalhoub, S. Epatha Merkerson, Eric Bogosian, Peter Riegert, Michael Benjamin Washington, Marjan Neshat and Deirdre O’Connell will deliver a transcendent three-act presentation of Roth’s chilling novel, adapted for the stage by renowned Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro and co-presented with 92nd Street Y, New York.

The Plot Against America is just one of four ticketed dramatic performances that will take place over of the course of the weekend, which will also include a preview of select scenes from John Turturro and Ariel Levy’s theatrical adaptation of Roth’s National Book Award-winning novel Sabbath’s Theater, featuring John Turturro and Jason Kravits; “Defender of the Faith,” one of Roth’s earliest and most beloved — and most controversial — short stories, read by Morgan Spector; and a pair of dramatic readings that feature two of Roth’s most brilliant reflections on his hometown of Newark, performed by Matthew Broderick and Peter Riegert.

The festival’s full event schedule includes:

Friday, March 17:

9:00 am-5:00 pm, Newark Public Library 

Audio Tour, an exclusive audio tour of the Philip Roth Personal Library, narrated by actor Morgan Spector (HBO’s The Gilded Age and Plot Against America). Bequeathed to the Library when Roth died in 2018, this unique collection houses the 7,000 books Roth collected over a lifetime, many of which include his handwritten notes and underlinings.

4:00 pm, Newark Public Library 

Philip Roth: Reading Myself and Others, featuring author Claudia Roth Pierpont and historians Sean Wilentz and Steven Zipperstein in an exploration of the writers and thinkers who most influenced Roth, from the sports and adventure stories that captivated him as a boy to the novels of Tolstoy, Joyce, Colette and Kafka, as well as the works of history that informed his late-career fiction.

7:00 pm, Victoria Theater, Lizzie & Jonathan Tisch Stage 

Newark in Roth’s Life, Work and Imagination, featuring actors Matthew Broderick and Peter Riegert performing dramatic readings of “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” and “The Ruthless Intimacy of Fiction,” by Philip Roth.

9:00 pm, The Chase Room 

My Newark, featuring playwrights Chisa Hutchinson and Richard Wesley, poets Jasmine Mans and Dimitri Reyes, and author Mikki Taylor in a showcase of original stories by contemporary Newark storytellers, along with readings by the high school student winners of the “Your Newark Story” citywide writing contest.

Saturday, March 18:

9:00 am-5:00 pm, Newark Public Library / Audio Tour

10:00 am, departing from NJPAC 

Philip Roth Bus Tour of Newark: A guided bus tour of Roth’s Newark led by President of Newark Landmarks Committee Liz Del Tufo that visits locations and places significant to the novelist and his characters, including his birthplace.

10:00 am, The Chase Room 

Letting the Repellent In: Philip Roth and the Art of Outrage, featuring authors Ayad Akhtar, Susan Choi, Ottessa Moshfegh and Gary Shteyngart in a provocative panel on the cathartic power of discomfort.

1:00 pm, The Chase Room 

“Defender of the Faith”, featuring actor Morgan Spector in a dramatic reading of one of Roth’s earliest and boldest stories, published to both acclaim and outrage in 1959.

3:30 pm, The Chase Room 

What Gives You the Right? A Conversation about Representation, Imagination, Empathy, and Exploitation, featuring authors Meghan Daum, Jean Hanff Korelitz, Lauren Michele Jackson and Hanna Rosin in a panel discussion on the ethics of representation and identity, and the limits of artistic freedom.

7:00 pm, The Chase Room 

Facts, Fiction and Literary Friendship, featuring authors Bernard Avishai, Philip Gourevitch and Lisa Halliday, and Leon Botstein, President of Bard College in an intimate panel featuring fellow writers and long-time friends reflecting on their relationships with the legendary writer.

8:00 pm, Hobby’s Delicatessen 

Stand-up and Challah! featuring comedians Eddie Brill, Ariel Elias, and Phil Hanley in a night of comedy, kibitzing and noshing at Hobby’s Delicatessen.

Sunday, March 19:

10:00 am-1:00 pm, Newark Public Library / Audio Tour

10:00 am, departing from NJPAC / Philip Roth Bus Tour of Newark

10:00 am, The Chase Room 

American Berserk: History, Democracy and the Relentless Unforeseen, featuring historian Sean Wilentz, authors Darryl Pinckney and Francine Prose, and literary critic Parul Sehgal in a timely conversation, building on Roth’s belief that history is fragile and unpredictable.

1:00 pm, Victoria Theater, Lizzie & Jonathan Tisch Stage 

The Plot Against Americafeaturing Eric Bogosian, André De Shields, S. Epatha Merkerson, Marjan Neshat, Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Riegert, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Benjamin Washington and Sam Waterston, in a dramatic reading of The Plot Against America, co-presented by the 92nd Street Y, New York.

6:30 pm, The Chase Room 

Sabbath’s Theater: A Philip Roth 90th Birthday Celebration: John Turturro and Jason Kravits will perform select scenes in a sneak preview of Turturro and Ariel Levy’s stage adaptation of Sabbath’s Theater. A post-performance conversation with Turturro and Levy, moderated by NPR’s Scott Simon will follow. The event will also include pre-performance cocktails, cake and live music to celebrate what would have been Roth’s 90th birthday.

PHILIP ROTH UNBOUND is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center and co-produced by Newark Public Library Trustee Rosemary Steinbaum and publishing and media executive Cary Goldstein. James Shapiro, the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia and Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater, serves as Literary Advisor to the festival, with additional curation from Bernard Schwartz, Director of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, New York. The Festival is supported by Sharon and Jon Corzine, The M & T Weiner Foundation and Judith Lieberman.

You can SEE the entire interview with Francine Prose and John Schreiber here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.