AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL G. ROSENTHAL, PLAYWRIGHT OF "IS THIS AMERICA?"

WHAT WERE YOUR SPECIFIC INSPIRATIONS FOR THIS PLAY?

Ian Sullivan and Tom Brown are great friends and I’ve kept a close watch on their theatre and film projects for many years. I had long sought to write roles specifically for them. In the summer of 2014, I had an idea to write a play set in the 1960s with Ian and Tom playing civil rights workers. I am incredibly grateful that I will see Ian and Tom playing the roles that I wrote for them.
I was seized by a more encompassing wave of inspiration in the summer of 2015. I was struck by the possibility of writing a period play set in the 1960s that would be steeped in the historical realities of time period and setting but would also boldly explore the subject of prophetic consciousness. When I began learning about the 1964 Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi, I instinctually knew that I had the ideal dramatic setting for my new play. Ian Sullivan was the first person I told about the play when it was just an idea smoldering in my soul. He has been the play’s greatest champion ever since our first conversation about it in Central Park.
I spent nearly a year researching before I started writing the play in earnest. I have steeped myself in the history of Freedom Summer and the 1960s Civil Rights movement. I have also extensively studied the great theologian and activist Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s biography and writings. Heschel is an incalculably large influence on the play. My rabbi and friend Daniel Ornstein has served as a theological consultant for the play
I feel an immense responsibility to honor the heroic leaders and participants of the Mississippi Summer Project. I have been particularly haunted by the brutal murders of Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney, which occurred at the onset of Freedom Summer. I am writing the play to pay tribute to them and many others who sacrificed their lives for the movement. I have also been deeply inspired and heartened by the Long Island Theatre Collective. I wholeheartedly believe that LITC is the ideal home for a play about civil rights, prophetic consciousness and liberation theology because they are courageously committed to supporting and producing socially conscious, highly affecting works of art. They are passionate about the unlimited potential of stories to generate authentic change in the world.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my values are closely aligned with their values.

WHEN PEOPLE LEAVE THE THEATRE AFTER SEEING IS THIS AMERICA? WHAT DO YOU WANT THEM TO TAKE AWAY?

I want the audience to have a cathartic experience with Is This America? I want the audience to recognize how urgently relevant this play is to our present moment even though it is set over a half century ago. I want to provoke self-confrontation and ultimately charge the audience to want to fight more vigorously for justice and equality for all people. I want the production to take the audience on a voyage into the dark heart of America and leave them emboldened to renew their engagement with certain sacred American principles and credos, especially the freedom to vote in a democratic society. I also would feel fulfilled if the audience leaves with genuine respect for the heroic freedom fighters that were willing to lay down their lives for oppressed African Americans in Mississippi. These men and women were truly soldiers without weapons whose noble legacy is our inheritance as Americans. It’s an inheritance that should give us light and sustenance when the war for freedom truly tests our mettle as soldiers waging our battles for a “more perfect union.”

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PROJECTS THAT YOU’VE WORKED ON?

Freeman in Paris is a play by my close friend Herb Newsome that I helped develop as a dramaturg and director. It is also a period play that tells the story of a fictional jazz musician in the 1950s. I directed the original production at the New Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh. Herb and I would remount the play for the United Solo Festival in New York City and a run at the Center Stage NY theater in New York City. I had an extraordinarily fulfilling and triumphant experience with Freeman. The play also was the catalyst for me reconnecting with the woman whom I would eventually marry so I am extremely grateful for the play every day of my life.

WHAT STAGE OF THE PLAYWRITING PROCESS ARE YOU CURRENTLY IN FOR IS THIS AMERICA?

I am unbelievably fortunate to have Laura Maria Censabella as my dramaturg for this production. Laura Maria is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. I have taken two ten-week playwriting workshops with her and I can bear witness to her exquisite brilliance as a writing teacher. She is an invaluable resource and I am excited to collaborate with her in January and February.

WHAT OTHER PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON?

I am a teacher at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. My greatest passion is supporting the artistic endeavors of my students. I am currently involved in supporting a film titled Charlotte with a production team comprised of my students Sophie Cohen, Elinor Cherin, Caroline Bissaillon and Julia Murphy. I am exceptionally gratified to be an ally of such remarkably talented and passionate students and I am intensely anticipating their finished film this spring.