Remembering Martha Rapoport

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Dear Junebugs,

This 2008 Ides of March is a bittersweet one for our local Hampton Roads theatre world with the loss of Martha Rapoport, founder and artistic force of Playback Theatre. Martha was inspiring, funny, generous, insightful, and I am so grateful that she was my friend. Ironically, despite the fact that we were both P-town girls, we met each other in Minneapolis-St. Paul one June when we took a class learning how to dramatically interpret Biblical stories. It so happened that I had a birthday that week, so Martha went shopping. She gave me a journal that had pages that were also pockets for mementos, tickets that were saved with my written entries.

It was the perfect gift because I’m an avid journal keeper and I needed a fresh book for that trip. So, maybe Martha was also psychic. We talked a lot about my play, Southern Girls, that I co-wrote with Dura Temple-Curry, my UCLA M.F.A. classmate. Starting in the 1950s, the play follows six women—three black and three white—from childhood to adulthood. When the play opens, the six girls are playing together, but by adolescence they have separated into the parallel but unequal worlds created by racial injustice. Martha and I quickly surmised that the play mirrored our own personal experiences. Indeed, that is why Dura and I wrote the play. Dura’s white Tennessee world was very much like my black world in Virginia, just separate.

Martha bought the additional element of religion. She was Jewish and—no big surprise here—she was a rebellious kid who enjoyed challenging her parents about working (they owned the Quality Shop, a fine men’s clothing store) on Saturdays (Jewish Sabbath). I know now that Reformed Jews go to synagogue on Sundays, but back then I knew nothing. I thought that the Jews who had survived Hitler all lived in Israel. Before I went off to U of P, all I saw was black and white and Christian (as in some kind of Baptist or Methodist with a sprinkling of Catholics).

Martha and I were kindred souls. As founders of non-profit organizations, we commiserated on what is often a thankless job. Truly, it was a great week. It was intellectually stimulating and full of laughter, especially when Martha would order a meal in a restaurant. Dinners with Martha were leisurely, well-researched events. The night we went to a Thai-Cuban restaurant with well over one hundred choices on the menu was particularly memorable. In the times to come when I think of Martha Rapoport, it will be to that week that I will return and smile when I think of my-too-soon-gone friend. This week has seen a harsh and frothy ides of March and the ill wind that blows with Martha Rapoport’s passing is indeed somber and bitter.

The sweet was this: The Greater Love, wonderfully written by Frankie Little Hardin at 40th St. Stage, follows the love life of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Married to a Negro woman (Anna Murray) for over forty years, he had an affair with his white secretary (Ottilia Assing) for twenty-five years. The themes of freedom and truth are reflected in personal and social mirrors that move and distort the essence of what is real and important in any one individual’s personal journey. In this house of mirrors, Frederick Douglass the legend is humanized and, despite the great pain he caused to both his wife and his mistress, his essential decency is never questioned and that is in no small measure due to Terrance Afer Anderson’s masterful portrayal, a strong supporting cast (LaToya Morris, Beth Pivirotto, Joy White), and a great crew.


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