New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), the anchor cultural institution for the city of Newark and the state of New Jersey, in collaboration with the Newark Public Library, will present PHILIP ROTH UNBOUND, a weekend-long festival that will celebrate, challenge and explore the life, legacy, and work of novelist and Newark-native Philip Roth, on what would have been his 90th birthday weekend.

Beginning Friday, March 17, and concluding Sunday, March 19, 2023, NJPAC will host a three-day series of entertaining and engaging events, featuring over forty of the most prominent writers, actors, artists, journalists, and public intellectuals working today. Designed to appeal to audiences of all backgrounds, whatever their level of familiarity with Roth’s work, the program will include star-studded readings, conversations, comedy, controversy, and debate that will explore the significance and impact of Roth’s unique literary legacy, and use his writing as a springboard to explore the broader questions it raises about life in America today.

Program highlights include a fully-cast, dramatic reading of Roth’s national bestseller The Plot Against America; a preview of John Turturro and Ariel Levy’s stage adaptation of Roth’s National Book Award-winning novel Sabbath’s Theater; and a number of spirited public debates and discussions on censorship, appropriation, identity politics and more. Participants include actors Mary-Louise Parker, S. Epatha Merkerson, Morgan Spector, John Douglas Thompson, John Turturro, Marjan Neshat, Deirdre O’Connell, and Jason Kravits; novelists Ayad Akhtar, Susan Choi, Joshua Cohen, Ottessa Moshfegh and Gary Shteyngart; authors and journalists Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lauren Michele Jackson, Ariel Levy, and Claudia Roth Pierpont; playwrights Chisa Hutchinson and Richard Wesley; comedian Eddie Brill; historians Sean Wilentz and Steven Zipperstein; and more to be announced.

“Not before and not since Philip Roth (fight me!) has there been a writer who is so free at his keyboard — wild and shameless — and who has so much faith in his reader to be as smart and willing as he is,” said Taffy Brodesser-Akner, author of Fleishman is in Trouble. “Whenever I want to read like the writer is holding me by the lapels, I always return to Roth.”

A towering voice in American letters for more than half a century, Philip Roth delighted, entertained, and provoked readers with his complex and often controversial portraits of characters chafing against the constraints of expectation and convention. Throughout his career, Roth meticulously and relentlessly mined his childhood in Newark for the material that would fuel his fiction. Like many young artists, Roth left his family and his hometown to develop an identity and voice of his own. But again and again, in his work he returned to Newark – a dynamic, diverse, working-class city whose cultural, political, and economic crises and triumphs have in many ways tracked the greater national situation over the decades – creating indelible characters and stories as dynamic, determined and distinct as the city’s five wards.

Roth remained so devoted to Newark, in fact, that he left his entire personal library of approximately 7,000 volumes – books accumulated by him from 1950 to the present – to the Newark Public Library when he died in 2018. Along with the Newark Public Library, the festival is also sponsoring a city-wide writing contest for Newark high school students called “Your Newark Story,” inviting young authors to write about how this city shaped them. Contest winners will read their stories at the festival.

“Newark has a rich artistic history, from jazz legends Sarah Vaughan and Wayne Shorter to poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, and so many more,” said NJPAC CEO John Schreiber. “Over the last 75 years, Philip Roth was one of the most singular and challenging voices in American fiction. And while the Newark of Roth’s youth has transformed, its essential qualities remain – innovation, creativity and grit. In presenting Philip Roth Unbound 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.”

“From the vantage point of Roth’s 90th, I can’t think of a writer who saw our nation more clearly, whose books more vividly embody its haunted, vital, coursing energy,” added Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar. “Reading his work is still thrilling to me, its infectious intellectual static, its sublime fusion of the personal and political, and perhaps above all, the whiplash swing and staggering beauty of the American language as it flows into us from its pages. We need him more than ever.”

The festival’s events will include:

Friday, March 17:

  • Philip Roth: Reading Myself and Others, 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. Participants include Claudia Roth Pierpont, Sean Wilentz, and Steven Zipperstein.
  • Newark in Roth’s Life, Work and Imagination, dramatic readings of “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka” and “The Ruthless Intimacy of Fiction,” by Philip Roth.
  • My Newark, a showcase featuring original stories by contemporary Newark-inspired storytellers, along with readings by the student winners of the “Your Newark Story” writing contest. Featuring playwrights Chisa Hutchinson, Richard Wesley, and others to be announced.
Saturday, March 18:
  • Letting the Repellent In Philip Roth and the Art of Outrage, a provocative panel on the cathartic power of discomfort. Participants include Ayad Akhtar, Susan Choi, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Gary Shteyngart.
  • Philip Roth Bus Tour of Newark: A guided bus tour of Roth’s Newark led by President of Newark Landmarks Commission Liz Del Tufo that visits locations and places significant to the novelist and his characters, including his birthplace.
  • “Defender of the Faith”, a dramatic reading of one of Roth’s earliest and boldest stories, was published to both acclaim and outrage in 1959. Featuring Morgan Spector.
  • What Gives You the Right? A Conversation about Representation, Imagination, Empathy, and Exploitation, a panel discussion on the ethics of representation and identity, and the limits of artistic freedom. Participants include Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lauren Michele Jackson and others to be announced.
  • Facts, Fiction, and Literary Friendship is an intimate panel featuring fellow writers and long-time friends reflecting on their relationships with the legendary writer. Participants to be announced.
  • Stand-up and Challah!  Writers and comics perform stand-up and read Roth’s most hilarious excerpts for a night of comedy, kibitzing and noshing at Hobby’s Delicatessen. Featuring comedian Eddie Brill and others to be announced.

Sunday, March 19:
  • Philip Roth Bus Tour of Newark: A guided bus tour of Roth’s Newark led by President of Newark Landmarks Commission Liz Del Tufo that visits locations and places significant to the novelist and his characters, including his birthplace.
  • American Berserk: History, Democracy and the Relentless Unforeseen is a timely conversation, building on Roth’s belief that history is fragile and unpredictable. Participants include Joshua Cohen, Sean Wilentz, and others to be announced.
  • The Plot Against America, a staged reading of The Plot Against America by some of the country’s finest actors, co-presented by the 92nd Street Y, New York. Featuring S. Epatha Merkerson, Marjan Neshat, Deirdre O’Connell, Mary-Louise Parker, John Douglas Thompson and others to be announced.
  • Sabbath’s Theater: A Philip Roth 90th Birthday Celebration: A sneak preview of John Turturro and Ariel Levy’s stage adaptation of Sabbath’s Theater featuring Turturro and actor Jason Kravits. This event includes a post-performance conversation with Turturro and Levy as well as cocktails, cake, and live music to celebrate what would have been Roth’s 90th birthday. Of his inspiration to adapt the award-winning novel, Turturro says, “Sabbath’s Theater is a raging, splendidly funny and profound journey on loss. Mickey Sabbath is a life force in its purest form.”
For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit 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.

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