Playwright/actor Jason Rosenberg takes to the stage to explain his struggle with a rare disease.
Jason Rosenberg, who used to see Broadway shows regularly with his late Jewish father, Glenn, would be the first to say “Don’t Cry for Me” when discussing his own plight.
“But,” he’d add. “Maybe it’s OK to laugh a little.”
That’s part of the message the 24-year-old Rosenberg will try to get across when his one-man show, Me First: An Autobiographical Comedy about Dying, debuts Sept.10 at The People’s House in South Philadelphia, as part of the Fringe Arts Festival. Diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease of the bile ducts that causes inflammation in or around the liver, Rosenberg has spent the last three years trying to not to make others feel uncomfortable around him — often at the sake of his own comfort.
The play, which will be performed eight times — including twice on Sept. 11 and 18 — attempts to enlighten viewers about both the internal and external turmoil people with chronic illnesses — like Rosenberg — deal with on a daily basis.
“I wanted to write this play having sat with these feelings and noticed there’s a communication barrier between me and people in my life,” said Rosenberg, who explained that while PSC isn’t immediately life-threatening, it weakens the body and often leaves it susceptible to cancer and other diseases. “It really bothered me that people didn’t understand what I was going through.
“I designed the show to walk though things people with chronic diseases deal with. I don’t know how I’m going to feel at the end of the day. There’s tons of times I have to cancel plans because I don’t feel well. People don’t realize a lot of things take physical energy that I don’t have.”
It’s certainly not easy for a 24-year-old man who should be in peak condition to have to ponder his own mortality. But once he got over the shock and worked through the denial that inevitably comes with such a stark realization, Rosenberg turned to his creativity and writing skills.
The Fringe, where his play, Mad Blood and other Beauties — an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet — was performed last year, was the perfect vehicle to tell his personal story. Most of his family — his mother, Maryann, his two older sisters, Holly and Sherry and his younger brother, Justin, all healthy — are expected to come down from Bayonne, N.J. for his performances.
Sadly, patriarch Glenn Rosenberg, who battled liver disease for 10 years, passed away in March. “He died of a heart attack — which was not related to it,” said Jason, noting there’s a long history of heart issues in his family. “We all thought it would be something liver related, because at one point Dad had 12 percent liver function. But I don’t have that. What I have is really rare — one in 30,000 people get it. I’d been feeling really bad and thought it was temporary. It wasn’t.
“But when I was diagnosed, it was like a turning point for me. Acknowledging it, I had to deal with it. My way had always been joking about it. I have a pretty dark sense of humor.
“The first thing I came up with was the title.”
Thus, Me First was born, though less than a week from opening night Rosenberg was still working on the script. Considering the way his life has gone, that should come as no surprise.
As a child with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, young Jason was raised as a “Cash(J)ew,” as he describes it. That didn’t stop other kids from picking on him.
“In kindergarten, I was bullied because of my name,” recalled Rosenberg, who came to Philadelphia to attend University of the Arts after his financial aid was terminated by Fordham when he became too sick to attend class. “I still don’t understand it, but I don’t face anti-Semitism anymore.
“I was really close to my Dad’s side of the family and have fond memories of getting together at Passover and Chanukah.
“My Dad’s the reason I’m in theatre. He took me to see tons of shows. Once I started expressing an interest in theatre, it was our thing. We’d see a show and go out for dinner in New York.”
In Glenn’s honor, Jason is attempting to raise awareness about organ donation while also hoping to raise money for both The American Liver Foundation and PSC Partners Seeking a Cure. The play, which combines elements of comedy with its thought-provoking message, has become somewhat of a catharsis for him.
And despite the provocative title of his work, he wants everyone to know he’s not dying. It just sometimes it feels that way.
“I’m not in the end stages of this disease and I’m not going to die in the next five years,” said Rosenberg, who admits the show title has confused friends and family. “It’s more about the limitations of living with a chronic disease.
“I have to make all my travel plans around my physical energy and hospital locations. I have to plan everything out in a way people my age don’t have to. It’s hard to be spontaneous — I can’t go backpacking through Europe. And it’s hard to have relationships because people don’t know how to talk about this. If I want to be open and frank, I risk turning people off.
“The way it affects me the most is, I’m always conscious of trying to steer the conversation to make them comfortable, which can be exhausting. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me. I’m sure that will happen. Pity is not very useful in starting conversation. Pity is a way to consume the pain of others without really having to deal with it.”
Rosenberg, on the other hand, has dealt with the self-pity, the anger — directed more at the circumstances than at his body or at others — and tried to move on. He hopes those who view his play will be able to do the same.
And even to leave the theater feeling uplifted, rather than depressed. “I want them to feel hopeful,” said Rosenberg, who recently started working for HelpHOPELive, a nonprofit organization that raises money to help pay medical expenses for transplant recipients or victims of catastrophic injury or illness. “It’s what I feel — like a burden is lifted off me.
“I wanted them to feel close to people in their lives who might be going through something like this — examine the standards they measure people by and try to push past their own discomfort.”
But above all, since laughter is the best medicine, don’t cry for him.
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