Arts » Theater

A Final Bow for Reuben Silver

In Memorium



He never lost his timing.

Reuben Silver, master of many theatrical arts including acting and directing, died last week at the age of 88. And even though he had been ailing for quite a while, it still seems like a shock that someone so vital, so wise and so funny would ever leave us. In a lifetime of splendid timing, he has surprised us one last time.

In a theater career that spanned many decades and included long stints as the artistic director of Karamu House, Reuben Silver influenced countless lives. And all those lives, including mine, are so much brighter for the light he so generously shed.

Reuben and Dorothy married in 1949, but they had been acting in college together for the previous three years. That partnership, with each of them also taking on directing duties, lasted for many years after they moved to Cleveland in 1955.

They were initially brought here by Karamu House founders Rowena and Russell Jelliffe, since the Silvers' approach to theater resonated with the Jelliffe's passion for an interracial theater as an agent of social change. So Reuben signed on as artistic director and Dorothy became the resident guest director.

As Reuben stated in a 2009 interview with the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, "By the early 1960s, America was a ferment of race due to the Civil Rights Movement, and that made Karamu House an exciting place to be. You felt you were at the center of something important."

During their time at Karamu, the Silvers were instrumental in presenting works by African American authors including Langston Hughes and LeRoi Jones (soon to become Amiri Baraka). They also presented a variety of classical plays from the American theater portfolio.

Eventually, waves of unrest in the inner-city neighborhood that surrounded Karamu changed the tenor of the times and forced a reconsideration of Karamu's goals and operational direction.

Thus, 21 years after he started at Karamu, Reuben was asked to leave. But he quickly landed a slot as a professor of theater arts at Cleveland State University, working in that capacity for 17 years.

Reuben's activity in the theater was curtailed after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease a few years ago. But with Dorothy's continual and tender caretaking, he remained mentally sharp and remarkably positive virtually until the end.

In the past few years, I have been honored to be included in a monthly lunch attended by, among others, the Silvers. Even four or five months ago, battling various complications of his illness and old age, Reuben still had the instinctive comic timing of a born trouper.

Over Cobb salads, Reuben and Dorothy would recite, from memory, old vaudeville-style bits — Dorothy's hand always lovingly touching his. And like a perfectly oiled comedy team, Reuben would land the punch line with devastating, hilarious precision.

Even up to the end, Reuben's sense of timing never left him. He seemed to intentionally delay his passing until Dorothy's most recent stage appearance, a stunning performance in 'night Mother at Beck Center, was completed on May 4.

He always knew the show must go on. And so it will, for Dorothy as well as their three children and four grandchildren. For them, and us, the show will forever be burnished to a warm glow because we were touched, in so many ways, by the gentle genius of Reuben Silver.

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