Northeast Ohio Celebrates Theater Legend Reuben Silver

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The late-Reuben Silver played to a packed house one last time Monday afternoon, as actors, directors and just plain fans crowded into the Ensemble Theater in Cleveland Heights. It’s been a month since Silver died at the age of 88, and Rabbi Daniel Roberts told the crowd that it was time to reflect on the theater legend’s lasting legacy.

DANIEL ROBERTS: It is traditional to come back after 30 days and realize that people continue to live, even though their bodies are no longer with us.

And for the next two hours, the theater reverberated with stories --- funny and sad --- and music, sung and played by members of Reuben Silver’s extended family.

MUSIC: Sarah Silver singing Adonai Ro-I 23rd Psalm (The Lord is My Shepherd)

The memories stretched back to 1955 when Silver and his wife Dorothy were recruited to assume the artistic leadership of Cleveland’s historic Karamu Theater. The Silvers continued the Karamu tradition of social activism and multi-racial casting, featuring a number of works by another Cleveland legend, Langston Hughes, who came from this largely African American neighborhood. Former Karamu Executive Director Margaret Ford Taylor fought back tears as she recalled how the Silvers nurtured her career.

MARGARET FORD TAYLOR: They represented something beyond themselves, something that was strong, and wonderful and good. And necessary to a lot of people. Someone said, the secret of passion is purpose. Reuben Silver abounded with passion and purpose.

After 21 years at Karamu, Silver took his passion and purpose to Cleveland State University’s theater department, where he spent 17 years, and where he was mentor and colleague to a young director named Joe Garry.

JOE GARRY: You know, we talk about Reuben’s charisma, but it was Reuben’s genius, it was his intellect, it was his ability to see deeply. He used that with all of us --- he never looked through us, he looked into us, and helped us discover unknown parts about ourselves.

Sprinkled among the heartfelt tributes were many humorous stories about Silver’s hearty appetite for life. His son Paul smiled as he surveyed the standing-room-only crowd. The spitting image of his father, Paul Silver gave a sympathetic shout-out to the overflow crowd in the reception area that was watching the proceedings on a projection screen.

PAUL SILVER: If my dad was here, he would apologize for there not being enough space inside, but would definitely point out that you, out there, are much closer to the food and drink when the reception begins. (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)

Just before that reception did begin, one last guest took the stage. 79-year-old Cleveland native Bill Cobbs recalled how the Silvers had helped launch his acting career at Karamu, and how that career had taken him to the Broadway stage and numerous movie and TV roles. He remembered how the Silvers invited him --- a young African American man --- into their home without fear of social censure. He also alluded to an unpleasant memory about how his two mentors were asked to leave Karamu in the mid-1970s at a time when social tensions moved the theater to pursue an artistic management more reflective of the neighborhood that surrounded it.

BILL COBBS: Those of us in New York --- those of us around the world --- realize what an injustice that was. We appreciate everything you gave us, we love you dearly, and I know that when we walk out of here today, all of us will realize why the sun is shining.

Rabbi Daniel Roberts then led the group in the Kaddish prayer --- the closing piece of a Jewish mourning service --- and then suggested one last gesture to celebrate the man whose life touched so many others for six decades.

DANIEL ROBERTS: I think there is only one thing that’s left for us to do --- a final round of applause for Reuben Silver.

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