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Journalist says popular play at San Diego's Old Globe Theater stole her life story

Journalist says Mansa Ra's play, "Shutter Sisters" was based on her podcast, "Finding Rebecca," and her life story without her permission

SAN DIEGO — A journalist who was chronicled by the New York Times about her search for her Black adopted sister whom her parents abandoned amid racial tensions in the 1960s is suing a popular playwright and San Diego's Old Globe Theater for stealing her life story.

Journalist Amy Roost filed suit this week against playwright and television writer, Mansa Ra, over his play "Shutter Sisters" which ran at the Old Globe Theater from October through November of last year.

Credit: The Old Globe
Screenshot of Old Globe's Website

According to Roost's lawsuit, playwright Ra based the play that focuses on racial stereotypes on her life and the 2017 article and podcast that she participated in with the New York Times. The similarities, says the lawsuit, are striking.

Roost's story, according to the article and lawsuit, began in a Chicago suburb in the early 1960s. At the age of eight, her adoptive mother told Roost that the family had adopted a Black baby girl a few years before she was adopted. Roost's mother said the family was unaware that the baby was Black and when her dad found out, he backed out of the adoption.

At the time, according to the Times story, Roost's father - who later lived in La Jolla - said Deerfield, Illinois was a hotbed for racial tension. A proposal to build a housing development where several Black families would live caused violent opposition from white residents. News reports said there were reports of crosses set fire to on yards of those who supported the development. 

Roost's family was among those in support of the new racially-mixed development.

But the tensions and racial threats were too much for Roost's father, Len Sandberg, says the Times article. 

And when he found out that the couple's new adopted baby was Black, he backed out.

It wasn't until 2012, after the death of Trayvon Martin, when Roost grew curious about her briefly adopted sister. 

She started out on a journey to find her and track her down. 

"I wondered what this little girl's life had turned out to be like," Roost told CBS 8 in a September 21 interview. "My mom wrote about her and her diaries, even 30 years later. The times were so different. My mom had bonded with her and my dad was worried for his family because there was a lot of violence and racial strife in our community surrounding race and the civil rights movement. But my mom always thought about her and wrote about her in her diary years after she gave her up. So I kind of wanted to find her as an homage to my mom, as well as just find out if she was okay."

Not long after, the two met and discussed their trajectories and how each other's race played a factor in them.

The story of the two women, as told by Roost, was featured on Snap Judgment, a WNYC podcast. The podcast and accompanying New York Times feature went viral, says Roost.

"It was beyond my wildest expectations, but especially the New York Times story," says Roost. "It had over 6 million page views on their website, it was the second most viewed story in 2017. And it was also featured again, in their end of year special as one of the top human interest stories of the year."

Roost says she and her one-time sister even sold their life's story to 20th Century Fox to make into a feature-length movie. But, COVID happened and the movie was put on hold.

Credit: Amy Roost
Photo taken by Amy Roost of her and Angelle Smith after signing movie deal

In 2021, Roost says her life story was not featured on the big-screen but on stage at San Diego's Old Globe Theater in a play called, "Shutter Sisters". 

“I was in total disbelief," says Roost. "I mean, even down to the woman who played me in the play looks like me. There were words from the play that was just straight out of my podcast and the New York Times article. It was my story.”

Roost recalls sitting at the Old Globe wanting to scream during the performance.

"I was shocked," Roost says. "I was squeezing my husband's hands so hard to keep myself from screaming."

Roost says she even tried to approach playwright Mansa Ra and asked him what inspired him to write the story, but he would not look at her. Instead, staff at Old Globe threatened to call security on her so she left.

According to Roost's lawsuit, The Old Globe's artistic director Barry Edelstein knew the role Roost's story had beforehand.

"In fact, one of [The Old Globe's] directors, Barry Edelstein, has admitted that the play is based on the New York Times article about Ms. Roost’s life story," reads the lawsuit.

Credit: Amy Roost
Photo taken of playbill

The lawsuit lists numerous similarities between the play and Roost's story, including details about her childhood, that her brother told her about her adopted sister before going to her mom, as well as the ages of the women, and her strained relationship with one of her adoptive brothers.

With little left in regards to options, Roost decided to file a lawsuit.

Alleges the lawsuit, "[Ra and The Old Globe] improperly profited from the misappropriation of Ms. Roost’s likeness and the violation of her right of publicity in the form of ticket revenue and potential future revenue."

 "Defendants had access to Plaintiff’s life story based on the widespread circulation of the “Finding Rebecca” podcast and the New York Times article, “The Adopted Black Baby, And The White One Who Replaced Her.” Based on that access, Defendants improperly misappropriated Ms. Roost’s likeness and relevant life experiences in producing “Shutter Sisters,” and in so doing, violated her right of publicity."

In a statement, The Old Globe told CBS that it could not comment on pending litigation. 

CBS 8 also reached out to Mansa Ra on a number of occasions for this story but did not hear back before publication.

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