Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stephanie Deutsch's "You Need a Schoolhouse"

Stephanie Deutsch's new book is You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South.

Here she explains which actors might play the main roles in a big screen adaptation of the book:
When my friend Tony Rizzoli asked me what Julius Rosenwald looked like I gave a rather flip response. I said, “kind of nebbishy.” But even as these words were leaving my mouth I realized they were incorrect. In his later years Rosenwald actually looked like Tony – thin, not much hair, angular face, friendly, open expression. Twenty five years ago, Tony’s performance in Larry Shue’s play The Foreigner was one of funniest things I’ve ever seen on stage. The sense of humor that lurks behind Tony’s own intelligent eyes was, I realized, a feature in Rosenwald as well. The millionaire president of Sears, Roebuck turned race conscious philanthropist could seem a rather wooden figure on the printed page. But Tony would save him from such a fate by showing his more energetic, playful, humorous side. I had long since decided that Booker T. Washington’s role would go to a rather more prominent actor -- either Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington. Both have the gravitas, not to mention the acting skills, to play the man who, one hundred years ago, was by far the most well-known black in America. Freeman’s physical resemblance is closer and his wonderful voice would provide the screen Washington with an asset he, in fact, lacked; his own voice was not particularly distinguished. But Denzel Washington -- younger, darker, fiercer – could give the role an intriguing intensity. The calm reasonableness that made Booker T. Washington such an appealing and acceptable figure at the time surely masked growing alarm as, his optimism notwithstanding, Jim Crow tightened its grip on the country in the early years of the twentieth century. The man who played the angry Civil War recruit in Glory and the unyielding coach in The Great Debaters might endow Washington with a complexity of feeling that many of his contemporaries, both white and black, assumed he did not have.

The intriguing relationship between the two men is not the only screenworthy aspect of my story. Rosenwald’s first visit to Tuskegee would surely light up the screen. In October of 1911 he travelled south with a trainload of friends and family members from Chicago. His visit to the hilly campus culminated in an evening service in the school’s elegant red brick chapel where he and Washington spoke. Then, as they often did for visitors, the students sang spirituals. Rosenwald, who had never before heard this music, was moved to tears. The same song could be reprised for the scene, just a year or two later, when the two men visited one of the small rural schoolhouses built as a result of their collaboration, encouragement and financial assistance. Then parents, teachers, children, community members lined the rutted country road to the school, dressed in their best and waving pine boughs in greeting, singing what one member of the party called “plantation songs.”

And there would have to be a scene where Washington reads a telegram from Rosenwald apologizing for missing a meeting of the Tuskegee Board of Trustees. He explained his absence using the words of his favorite of the spirituals the students sang. He said he could not come because he was “walking in Jerusalem, just like John.” Cue the music.
Learn more about the book and author at Stephanie Deutsch's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue