On a stage in D.C. in front of hundreds of people, local TV and radio host, member of Howard University’s board of trustees, and “beloved prodigal son of the DMV,” Rock Newman, approached comedian and impressionist Sylvia Morrison-Pitt from behind as she performed, reached into her dress, and stuffed napkins into her bra, touching her left breast, according to a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court.
Morrison-Pitt, who goes by Sylvia Traymore Morrison, performed during the annual March on Washington Film Festival at the Burke Theatre last July, and was the final act of the evening following the screening of I am Dick Gregory, a documentary about the comedian and civil rights activist. Newman had led a panel discussion earlier in the evening.
Morrison-Pitt had just finished her impression of former First Lady Michelle Obama and moved on to an impression of actress and TV host Wendy Williams when Newman touched her. She tried to hide her shock and horror as she removed the napkins from her dress and continued her performance, according to court documents. But Newman wasn’t done.
As Morrison-Pitt started into an impression of First Lady Melania Trump, Newman again approached her from behind and this time began to unzip her dress, exposing part of her body to the evening’s panelists watching the performance from behind, according to her lawsuit filed September 2018.
In the complaint, Morrison-Pitt accuses Newman of assault and battery, and infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking $9 million in damages.
About four months after the lawsuit was filed, in January 2019, Newman, who was once a close confidante to Mayor Marion Barry, emceed the District’s inauguration and swearing in ceremony. Newman is the host and producer of The Rock Newman Show on Howard University’s WHUT-TV, and has had success as a longtime boxing promoter.
Both Newman, 66, and his attorney declined to comment, though the TV show host recently posted about the case on Facebook.
In the post, Newman notes that there is video footage of the encounter and writes that he was attempting to add humor to Morrison-Pitt’s performance.
“Later when I surprisingly heard from others she was offended (she never mentioned such when we were together) I attempted to reach her repeatedly via phone, text and email to sincerely apologize if I had caused her to feel badly,” Newman writes. “Her only response was to file, and serve a $9mm claim against me. I genuinely wish her well. I’m confident justice will prevail.”
Morrison-Pitt’s attorney did not return City Paper’s calls seeking comment.
In court documents, Newman does not appear to deny Morrison-Pitt’s description of the incident, but his attorneys argue that Morrison-Pitt consented to “what was clearly intended to be a gag” because she did not object while on stage.
“[Morrison-Pitt] was aware of [Newman’s] actions before, or at least, from the inception of the incident, and [Morrison-Pitt] did not object nor did [she] show any surprise, nor did [she] recoil, nor did [she] move herself away from [Newman], nor did [she] protest, nor did [she] act in any way to prevent, limit, or mitigate [Newman’s] actions,” Newman’s lawyers write in his defense. “Even after [Newman] made contact initially with [Morrison-Pitt], [Newman] went to her other side, and then behind her, and again, [she] did not object nor protest nor do the above listed things.”
Morrison-Pitt challenges Newman’s defense saying throughout the complaint that she was surprised and mortified by his actions.
“Defendant’s characterization of ‘consent’ are nonsensical and incongruent with the District of Columbia’s legal definition of consent,” her lawyers argue.
The complaint also includes several emails sent immediately following the July 2018 incident, including from Newman, the artistic director for the festival, Isiara Bey, and an unnamed person who witnessed the incident, which offer a more unvarnished view of Newman’s thinking and the reactions of others.
On the day after the performance, Bey sent an email to Morrison-Pitt and others involved with the festival, including Newman. She wrote in part:
“We are extremely alarmed by Rock’s dangerously provocative and unacceptable treatment of Sylvia during her performance. He may have meant it in good fun, but it was not, especially in this day and age. He invaded her personal space, humiliated her and stepped on her bit all at the same time. One can only imagine, Sylvia, what you endured as a lone female in a male dominated industry. Kudos to you for taking it in stride.
We have already apologized to Sylvia for her having to endure that behavior as a guest and performer at one of our events and wanted you all to know that. This has also been expressed to Rock separately, and while we appreciated his heartfelt stories of Greg and told him so, the evening ended on a sour note for many of our audience members. That had to be addressed. We wanted you to know that, too…”
The following day, July 23, 2018, Newman emailed Morrison-Pitt and copied others:
“Sylvia, the very first thing I did last night when I arrived home was to FRIEND you on FaceBook. I did not know of your remarkable talent and story. My focus was to immediately ask you if you’d be available to come on my show as a guest.
I then shared the evening with my wife of 35 years, giving her all of the details, including those for which I am now being appropriately castigated. She stopped laughing and seemed crestfallen. To my abject horror, she explained my actions might have offended you. I immediately and repeatedly called and texted Samantha Abrams to see if she could put us in touch. It was my heartfelt desire to speak with you to determine if you felt offended. And if so, I wanted to humbly and contritely offer you my most sincere apologies.
In the absence of us yet speaking, I lay myself fully before you and all who read this seeking your forgiveness. I am beyond sorry that my attempt at adding more humor to the evening might have offended or distressed you.
I will make myself available to speak with you anytime you wish if said discussion is with which you’d be comfortable.
Again, to you and all copied here I offer my deepest regret and apology for behavior that may have hurt you, and was unbecoming the standard for which I always attempt to hold myself.”
One person, who is unnamed in the lawsuit, responded to Newman’s email. It reads in part:
“I’m sending this letter to address a few things but most importantly to extend my apology to Sylvia Traymore Morrison.
Sylvia, please accept my apology. I was up all-night Friday to Saturday filled with anxiety and disappointment in myself for not stepping up in the moment that you were being violated during your performance. I was silent then and for that I am truly sorry, and I cannot be silent now.
That is why I will address Rock Newman here, publicly as the deplorable incident that took place was public as well. With that said I say this: Rock, I read and re-read your apology several times and I can’t shake the impression that rather than owning the full responsibility and weight of the assault that took place you have done everything you can to distance yourself from culpability.
You began your ‘apology’ by telling Sylvia that you had sent her a friend request because you wanted to invite her on your show — I don’t see how this is germane to the issue at hand. Too many times I have seen someone commit a wrong and then offer some type of ‘payment’ to purchase the silence or compliance of the victimized party. This feels very much like that. I must say, no.
You then follow-up by telling Sylvia that you’ve discussed this with your wife (of 35 years) and it was then that you realized that you ‘MAY’ have offended her. This is another tactic I have seen displayed by people who have displayed predatory behavior. There’re a few things happening here:
1. Sharing the fact that you spoke about this with your wife as if to say: see, there’s no way I could’ve done anything wrong intentionally because I talked to my wife about it. I must say, no.
2. Pointing out 35 years of marriage which is totally irrelevant to the issue, but it holds up a facade that says: I’m a man dedicated to my wife for decades and there’s no way I would touch another woman in an inappropriate sexual manor. Again sir, I must say, no.
3. Adding in that it was only then when you saw the displeasure on your wife’s face that you realized you ‘might’ have offended Sylvia. Sir, you are 66 years old and I cannot believe after all the years you’ve spent on this Earth interacting with people at the highest level that you did not read her signals nor those of the room. Yet again, I must say, no.
Lastly, your ‘apology’ is riddled with ‘IF I’ and ‘MIGHT HAVE’ and “MAY HAVE’ hurt, offended or distressed … Where is the ownership of your poor behavior? I ask because you DID offend, you DID distress and you DID hurt everyone in general and most importantly, Sylvia specifically. I was silent while your offense took place, but I will NOT be silent now. I must say, no!”
“I genuinely thank you for you[r] note. The education and butt whuppin’ I’m receiving from my feeble attempt at adding humor to the moment, and now made to recognize my mindless lapse of judgement [sic] is invaluable and will help frame my attitude, approach and behavior for the rest of my living days.
It is my transparent desire to be wholly accountable in acknowledging and apologizing for any hurt, embarrassment or disrespect Sylvia or anyone … else felt. Please know that I cherish DICK GREGORY as a near DEITY and would never intentionally do anything to anyone honoring him as Sylvia was to blemish her or said honor.
Quickly to address your point regarding my referencing Sylvia being a guest on my show. That’s real easy. I nearly always have my 3rd eye open for unique guests who I believe might enthrall my viewers. Seeing Sylvia perform for the first time, I INSTANTLY knew I’d beg, borrow or steal to get her to appear on my TV broadcast. That was my ONE and ONLY motivation! In my mind’s and producer’s eye I already knew how I’d promote her appearance. IN THESE HORRIBLE, SAD, DARK DAYS OF TRUMP, THE ROCK NEWMAN SHOW BRINGS YOU A BRIGHT DAY OF SYLVIA SUNSHINE, HUMOR AND ARTISTRY. Or something approximating the foregoing…
To the extent my SINCERE expression of sorrow, regret and apology wasn’t as through out and as perfect as you would have liked, I can only say I’m trying my best to [be] the best human I can as I attempt straightforwardly to address all the issues surrounding Friday evening.
I say again, Sylvia is at the forefront of my focus. However I also am mindful and feel an obligation to attempt to express to all involved my genuine, humble feelings.
I am basically a rather silly, fun loving Brother who attempts to make this world a better place. When I screw up, I try to acknowledge such and work tirelessly to rectify and make amends.
I was so pleased and happy to be part of this tribute to GREG and feel beyond awful my actions tainted the night. I pray that I am given the opportunity by all those whom I hurt, disappointed and let down to redeem myself.
More importantly, I hope to find a way to help lift Sylvia in a manner that demonstrates my respect and admiration for her as a person and artist.”
Court records show that the case could be headed for mediation later this year.