Dying playwright's latest work recounts 'Interesting Times'

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"I've had a wonderful life," says Jerry Starr.

The Pittsburgh professor, playwright and community activist is feeling understandably elegiac, since he is fighting a fatal cancer. But he does so with the tenacity, intellect and creativity he has wielded in a lifetime of teaching, writing and community work.

'Interesting Times'
  • Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., second floor.
  • When: Through Nov. 23; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
  • Tickets: 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org

It was five years ago, after early retirement at West Virginia University, that Starr, now 67, revived his youthful passion for theater. His first full-length attempt, based on typically exhaustive research, was "Buried: The Sago Mine Disaster." Workshopped two years ago at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre and since staged elsewhere, it had a reading Sunday at the Cabaret at Theatre Square, to be repeated this Sunday at 8 p.m. at Pittsburgh Playwrights, 542 Penn Ave.

Starr's second full-length play is "Interesting Times," a semi-autobiographical account of a young Jewish man's coming of age and crossing the racial divide in Detroit, in the period of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" and the assassination of JFK. A full production plays at Pittsburgh Playwrights this weekend and next.

The title is taken from what is popularly reputed to be an old Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times." Starr has lived in such times, and he has made them more interesting with his activist passion.

The play arose out of planning a 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of Montieth College, a radical, experimental community college created by Wayne State University in Detroit, cheered by such progressive intellectuals as David Riesman and Irving Howe and aimed at first-generation college students. Two-thirds of them dropped out, but of the others, 80 percent went on to grad school.

When has Starr thrown himself into a project with less than full energy and intellect? Arousing memories of his youth, that commemorative project spilled over into "Interesting Times," with its re-creation of just that moment in history, which he calls "pivotal to me."

Growing up in working-class Detroit, Starr went on to Montieth from the heavily Jewish Mumford High School. He wrote short plays, but his taste for commitment and activism led him to sociology, doing an undergraduate thesis on TV and urban life. From 1964-70 he earned his Ph.D. at Brandeis University, with an emphasis on the Chicago School of sociology and its focus on field work. "I enjoyed that because I enjoy dialogue," he says -- the playwright as ethnographer, or vice versa.

Teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he established his dovetailing of private research and public response. After seven years, a recession in higher education froze tenure and he moved to WVU, eventually commuting from Mt. Lebanon, where he and his wife, Judy, raised their two boys while she earned her master's in social work and pursued her own career.

Starr is best known to Pittsburgh for the 1990s WQED accountability project, seeking to bring greater diversity to public television and counter the flood of doo-wop programming. He galvanized others, knowing that "people will rally to someone who stands up and says, 'that's not right!'"

He founded Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and carried the struggle right up to PBS, leaving a lasting mark on the national movement for media reform.

His writings include six books, the latest of which are "The Arts in Social Change," chronicling the dynamic relations between artists and activists from early 20th-century Greenwich Village to today's theater of social justice, and "Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting" (completed with a grant from Bill Moyers). He is editor/author of "The Lessons of the Vietnam War," based on a course he taught at WVU for 13 years, which, with extensive supporting materials, has been used by thousands of colleges and secondary schools.

But Starr is never just a chronicler: He has founded more than a half-dozen organizations for progressive action in sociology, politics, education and public policy. He always points scholarship toward action, as in his 46-page "How to Make Public Broadcasting Accountable to Your Community: A Manual for Activists," available free on the Web.

A modern Tom Paine, Starr reminds us of our democratic ideals, as in "Homefront," a video series he produced at the Warhol Museum, or a 2008 article in The Nation, in which he charged that as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, John McCain was more influence peddler than guardian of the public interest.

"It was a wonderful five years," he says of his busy years since retirement, which "takes some of the sadness out of dying so soon."

Starr is a natural match with Pittsburgh Playwrights and its policy of teaming artists across the racial divide. He served them earlier this year as volunteer managing director, but had to drop out at the end of the summer because of his illness.

To artistic director Mark Clayton Southers, Starr's fatal illness brought back memories of August Wilson's sudden decline at age 60. Then, Southers had to stand by, helpless. But now, he could bring Starr's latest work to the stage. Pittsburgh Playwrights already had planned a reading and workshop of "Interesting Times," so it just had to shift gears. Southers canceled a production of "You Can't Take It With You" by George S. Kaufman, another Pittsburgh playwright, to bring it quickly to production.

In a recent message to patrons about the change, Southers says of Starr's play:

"The language, music, books, news events and controversies are historically accurate. Forty-five years later the issues still resonate ... family loyalty vs. breaking away, compulsory military service vs. voluntary social service, racism vs. the civil rights movement, corporate materialism vs. the rise of the counterculture."

Looking back is natural in Starr's condition. But for a committed public intellectual, this also means looking forward. "When I got my diagnosis," he says, "I thought first, 'I don't deserve it,' but then, 'I had an interesting life -- and a beautiful wife, children, good deeds.' So I live a day at a time."

For more about Jerry Starr, visit jerrystarr.info.

Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at 412-263-1666 or crawson@post-gazette.com


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