“Transforming the National Conversation on Race”
Daniel “Danny” Wise was conspicuous amongst the sea of Black activists and civil rights leaders. He was holding court and commanding attention in the hallway outside the opening session of this year’s 50th Anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing in Alabama. Wise was there for the screening of his forthcoming movie musical, SOUL DOCTOR: The Movie. “Transforming the National Conversation on Race,” is Wise’s publicizing premise.
It is a Broadway musical, he adapted to film, that focuses on African American and Jewish relations centered around the historic partnership/friendship between “rock star” Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and iconic musical artist, civil rights activist Nina Simone.
“We’re writing the story of the foremost Jewish composer of the 20th Century,” says Wise, who wrote and directed SOUL DOCTOR on Broadway in 2014 and now the movie. “Carlebach was the father of contemporary Jewish music and the voice of the Jewish revival after the holocaust. This is a story of two people that never wanted to be singers. Nina Simone wanted to be a classical pianist but was offered a job playing piano at a bar on condition that she also sing. Shlomo Carlebach was a prodigious young rabbi who escaped Hitler’s Germany as a child and was now exploring the counterculture in search of a way to help reinvigorate the Jewish experience. This was a fluke encounter. And, Shlomo had never composed a song. Simone was the daughter of clergy and they formed a very deep bond. She introduced him to gospel music and encouraged him to write music. He told her, ‘You’re going to make it to Carnegie Hall,’ and she did.”
For her Carnegie Hall debut in 1963, Nina Simone sang four Shlomo Carlebach songs in Hebrew, as a tribute to him for encouraging her career when she was unknown. And she did record songs in Hebrew and performed in Israel. Her first husband was a Jewish musician.
Wise says Rabbi Carlebach masterfully created a new Jewish revival with roots in the Hassidic soul experience but was also influenced and shaped in its content and form by black gospel. “He would regularly visit black churches and even recorded black spirituals,” says Wise in his New York City accented, distinctive baritone voice.
Nina Simone also performed and recorded Shlomo’s music, which reportedly makes this is really a unique story. “It really was the kernel of what became the contemporary Jewish revival until this very day,” Wise says.
And over the past decade, Shlomo’s daughter, Neshama Carlebach brought this full circle when she introduced her father’s music to many black gospel churches, often performing and recording throughout the world together with The Green Pastures Church Choir and others.
Robin Williams, is an accomplished ethnomusicologist and inaugural Director of the New Orleans Jazz Institute: “I understand the cross-cultural and cross-spiritual dynamics of Shlomo and Nina’s connection,” says Williams, “Diamonds are created under pressure; in this case, both artists were borne of oppressed people and the sheer brilliance and passion of their combined artistry was a shining example to their ancestors of beauty that could not be bound.”
In effect, it is often said, that both Simone and Rabbi Carlebach became the voice of their respective racial group’s revival and identity. Nina Simone became a strident and significant Black Nationalist.
“Although she had a challenging relationship with the white community, and was very affected by racism in America, she had a very different relationship with the Jewish community,” reveals Wise. “I’m sure Simone did not realize the extent of the impact she had on the Jewish experience. It really wasn’t until we researched this turning point in Carlebach and Simone’s life that a full picture of how their friendship helped shape the Jewish experience.”
Wise continues wistfully, “It’s so important for both peoples to see. It is important for us to recognize how much we have given each other. You can see the dynamic of the Shlomo Carlebach, Nina Simone connection and, really, the power of that history and that time within this entertaining narrative.”
The charismatic filmmaker and theater veteran was in Selma for the Annual 2020 Selma Jubilee to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others successfully did on March 21, 1965. After the march, the historic Walton Community Theatre, in Selma hosted screenings of the movie to the hundreds of marchers that had convened there from across the nation.
“After each of screenings we’ve presented throughout the country, the audiences are up singing and dancing in the aisles” Wise exclaims. “The story is so celebratory and redemptive” Wise readily admits that he genuinely believes this movie or “his baby” is something special.
“I say it’s my baby, not in terms of my ownership, but rather looking at something that is now bigger than me. It was my baby, but it has certainly grown up,” he opines. “I had no idea that such a visceral experience, such a live experience like this story would translate into the big screen. We’re being approached now and in advance discussions with major distributors about worldwide distributions.”
The film stars Tony Award nominee Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) as Shlomo, and Nya (star of the recent Cleopatra and the current Broadway musical Caroline or Change) as Nina Simone.
“The movie is very powerful,” opined Naomi King, the wife of Martin King’s brother, the late A.D. King, following a Selma screening. “If you are lacking in knowledge it is a must that you see this movie to become more informed. Any person watching this movie, it should shake them, move them, and hopefully change them.”
Wise was raised in NYC and Israel. He grew up, he says, in Jewish/black neighborhoods, whether it be Crown Heights or Far Rockaway. “It is disappointing today that many young people don’t realize how much the Black and Jewish community have enriched each other and continue to empower each other” he laments.
Wise proudly reveals his parents were involved in civil rights because, they were “more of the Bernie Sanders kind of Brooklyn socialist Jews” that were incredibly involved with social action.
“My mother ran something called The Freedom Center for CORE, and she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King,” he tells. “We have many pictures and recordings. My mother just sent me a bunch of slides that she took of Dr. King at a small rally in Chicago and a small rally in New Haven, Connecticut.”
Wise enhances that, “After having written, directed and edited the piece, and witnessed how African American audiences experienced this movie, I realized how deeply the civil rights movement activated the Jews and the Jewish identity at a time when it was terribly forlorn.”
Asked to describe the relationship between the Jewish and African American communities today, Wise replied. “The Jewish community owes a great debt of gratitude to the African American community because of this shared experience, and because of how we were so culturally enriched by the African American experience.
Wise tells this reporter during an online Atlanta Video Network interview that when he was in Selma he was “moved to tears to see such powerful people within the African American community, so focused and with such excellence of character and articulation, especially the young generation,” he enthusiastically explains.
“It reminded me so much of being a young Jewish teenager,” he remarks nostalgically. “It was 30 or 40 years after the holocaust, we sang and marched together, all spirited with the connection to our heritage. Marching over the [Edmund Pettis] Bridge and seeing predominantly African American kids from all over the country, and singing We Shall Overcome and those other Freedom songs that I grew up with, like it was their own contemporary songs, was very encouraging.”
Wise, a widely respected entertainment entrepreneur, wisely concludes about our country’s current civil rights movement:
“We were at a different time, in terms of leadership,” he proclaims. “Dr. Martin Luther King was a great prophet, but he was also a great businessman. He was someone who understood focus and because of that he unified people to a purpose, but with specific and urgent goals. Now, it seems more about broad platforms. And it’s a shame because there is still systemic racism and inequality in this country.”