That production began half a century ago, during a casual conversation with Nathan Cohen, drama critic of The Toronto Star. “He told me he’d just seen a reading of an extraordinary play that would never play Canada,” Mr. Rothenberg remembered. “He said it needed a New York imprimatur. I said, ‘Nathan, you haven’t liked anything since Potemkin. If you liked it, I gotta read it.’
“Well, I was chilled by the play. I’d seen prison movies. They were either rioting or escaping. They weren’t raping. This was about a kid who comes in and gets raped the first night, and, when I met John Herbert, I learned that indeed it was his story, and he had, in fact, been gang-raped. He told me he had been in a state of rage for 20 years. He was 36 when he wrote the play and 20 when it happened. Theater was his cathartic release. I gave it to several producers, and they all said, ‘Well, it’s a thrilling piece of theater, but who’s going to come?’ So I decided to produce it myself.”
And he did—at the Actors’ Playhouse, for 13 months in the late ’60s—directed by Mitchell Nestor, starring Victor Arnold, Robert Christian, Terry Kiser and Bill Moor.
The Fortune Society was born after ex-cons with stories to tell started populating the talkbacks after performances. Sixteen people gave two dollars cash for expenses, and a bank account was started with $32. Fortune, which aids prisoners’ reentry into society, now has a staff of over 190. Mr. Rothenberg served for 18 years as its first executive director.
In 1985, he ran for City Council; he didn’t win but was elected State Committeeman for the Democratic Party in 1986. “I realized, by then, that I had done all I could do at Fortune—that I was a grass-roots person, and it needed more sophistication,” said Mr. Rothenberg, who opted for a graceful exit and returned to theater publicity, where his old boss, producer Alexander Cohen, and Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding kept him busy.
When The Castle started looking like a viable property, he was pulled to the other side of the footlights to direct and dramatically shape the life stories of the cast. Produced by Chase Mishkin and Eric Krebs, The Castle put in a year Off-Broadway at New World Stages in 2008 and has been pelted with requests from colleges, churches and prisons ever since. “We’ll be in Sing Sing before 400 inmates on the 26th, back at The Castle on the 30th, at the Jewish Community Center at 76th and Amsterdam on Oct. 11, and in November at Baruch College and Rutgers. We have about 50 dates a year. I thought it’d fade away, but you can’t kill it with a stick.
“The Exonerated broke my heart when I saw it—they’re all innocent,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “Our cast isn’t. They’re guilty, but the crime is what they did—it’s not who they are. Every time somebody does a story, they want to know what they did, as if that told them who they are. As one guy says, ‘They should hear about all the things I got away with!’”