Call Mr Robeson – a Life with Songs , is a one man play written and performed by Nigerian actor, Tayo Aluko. Aluko became a qualified architect and worked for several years as a green developer, but found lack of progress in this area increasingly frustrating. At this time, he serendipitously came across the name of Paul Robeson, someone he previously knew nothing about. He was immediately fascinated by the man and his life, and decided to write a one-man play, based on Robeson’s life so that others could learn about him as he had. He ditched architecture and began performing full-time. His play has won awards and received excellent reviews wherever it has been performed, both in the UK, the USA and elsewhere, and it has brought back into the historical narrative a figure whose name and achievements had been eclipsed.
His play is a dramatised summary of Robeson’s remarkable and eventful life and highlights how his radical activism caused him to be disowned and disremembered, even by the leaders and descendants of the civil rights movement.
Michael Billington in a Guardian review of Aluko’s play said: “And, even if a 90-minute one-man show can't encompass the whole of Robeson's extraordinary rise and fall, Tayo Aluko does a fine job in evoking his dynamic presence and in reminding us of the inhospitable attitude to dissent in the land of the free…For those who know little about Robeson, this touring production offers an admirable introduction to a great pioneering performer.”
Robeson’s voice is unique, like Kathleen Ferrier’s or Maria Callas’s – immediately and unmistakably recognisable after only a few notes. You can hear the echoing cries of the suffering black slaves in his interpretations of their spirituals, in the chain gang songs the repetitive rhythms of resistance, and his people’s inextinguishable dignity and pride through his declamatory, defiant and resonant rich baritone.
If he is known at all by today’s generation, who have not seen Aluko’s play, it will be as an obscure black singer of spirituals heard on scratchy mono recordings, but Paul Robeson was once a towering figure of the twentieth century, renowned worldwide. Between the millstones of the Cold War, his life and achievement were ground out of existence; he became a non-person.
His life has all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. As a young student he excelled in everything he took up. After graduation he experienced a stellar rise as an actor and singer, soon winning worldwide acclaim. His sonorous baritone voice became one of the most recognisable on the musical scene. He became a leading spokesman of the early civil rights movement and a beacon for young aspiring blacks in the USA. However, the onset of the Cold War in 1945 found him on the wrong side of the ideological divide.
His admiration for the Soviet Union and espousal of socialism turned him into a hate figure for the American cold warriors. In an ironic mirror image of their own depiction of the Soviet Union, the establishment proceeded to mercilessly harass the man, withholding his passport, thus preventing him from travelling abroad, enforcing a ban on his public performances throughout North America, as well as on stage and screen, and extirpating his name from the historical record. He was ‘disappeared’ from public life and even in more recent histories of the period his name was absent or included only as a footnote; just as Stalin airbrushed Trotsky’s image from old Bolshevik photos, Paul Robeson was removed from official US history books.
He was born in 1898, the youngest of five children. His own father had been born a slave. His mother died when he was six and his father, a preacher, raised the family alone. Despite the poverty and inauspicious beginnings, Robeson won a scholarship to Somerville High School and went on to win another to Rutgers University. There his prowess on the sports field was legendary, particularly his achievements in the college football team. He was listed as the nation’s top college star by Walter Camp, an authority on US football. Before this accolade, though, he was almost killed by his own team-mates who gave him a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder and badly damaged hand in his first game because they didn’t want a ‘negro’ in their team. The opposition teams were even more averse to playing a team with a ‘negro’ player. Robeson was not only a great footballer, though, but excelled in basketball, baseball, discus, shot-put and javelin, among other sports. His orations as a student already revealed a young man profoundly idealistic, concerned with human justice and affronted by the indignities heaped on ‘his people’. His thesis on the US Constitution: The Fourteenth Amendment: the Sleeping Giant of the American Constitution is a penetrating and eloquent examination of this extension of full human rights to all citizens in the USA. He won several awards for his contributions to public speaking.
In 1920, he entered Columbia Law School and a year later married the beautiful Eslanda Cardozo Goode, the daughter of a prestigious black family, and a pathologist. Only weeks after entering law practice he resigned because the white secretary refused to take dictation “from a nigger”. This was, though, serendipitous, as it pushed him into acting and singing. “I don’t know what it is,” he later said, “Perhaps I never shall, but there is something within me that all my life has caused me to succeed whenever I appeared before the public far beyond what my experience, training or knowledge deserved.” He was one of those rare people, encapsulated so eloquently by Philip Roth in his novel American Pastoral, who possess that “talent for being himself, the capacity to be this strange engulfing force and yet to have a voice and a smile unsullied by even a flicker of superiority - the natural modesty of someone for whom there were no obstacles, who appeared never to clear a space for himself.”
We need, perhaps, to recall the context of the period in which Robeson was growing up. The US, certainly until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in 1963, was an apartheid state – even worse in the south than the north – in which blacks were discriminated against on every level and in every aspect of life. For a black person to reach prominence in any field would have been equivalent to an amputee beating an able-bodied athlete in a running event. Life for black people was a litany of petty humiliation, demeaning jobs and patronising attitudes. Despite Robeson’s height and stature – he was over six feet tall and built like a wardrobe, with extremely good looks, a disarming smile and mischievously twinkling eyes - he was not immune to such discrimination. Even in 1939, already famous, he was still asked in a New York hotel to use the freight elevator, even though he was the guest of honour at the reception being held there. The hatred for black people by many whites was vitriolic. The Ku Klux Clan flourished, farcical trials and convictions of black men and extra-judicial lynchings were widespread and an accepted part of the social landscape.
Robeson first made his name as an actor on stage and in film. Eugene O’Neill happened to see him in an amateur performance and immediately asked him if he’d play the lead role of Jim in his play ‘All God’s Chillun Got Wings’, depicting the relationship between a black man and a white woman. The play caused outrage and consternation at its first performances in the USA, but brought Robeson into the limelight. He went on to play Emperor Jones in O’Neill’s eponymous play when it was revived in 1924 for London audiences, and his performance received excellent reviews. The play deals with the denial of one’s identity – in this case a black man pretending to be white - in order to succeed, an issue close to Robeson’s heart. He went on to win even more approbation for his role in the musical ‘Show Boat’ in the 1928 London Royal Theatre production. The musical was immensely popular with white audiences, and even gained the attendance of Queen Mary. Robeson was subsequently summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace, and won the friendship of many MPs. Show Boat continued for 350 performances and remained one of the Royal's most profitable ventures.
Feeling comfortable in London, and with no shortage in offers of work, the Robesons decided to make their second home there and bought a house in Hampstead. In 1930, he took on the role of Othello at the Savoy Theatre, playing opposite a young 23 year-old Peggy Ashcroft, as Desdemona and Sybil Thorndike playing Emilia. He and Ashcroft had a short, but passionate affair which almost wrecked his own marriage to ‘Essie’. Robeson was to play Othello again in 1959 for the RSC at Stratford this time with Mary Ure as Desdemona and alongside a very young Vanessa Redgrave. During his time in London, between his public engagements, he devoted himself to a study of the roots of pan-African culture, and in early 1934 enrolled at London’s SOAS to study African languages.
Unlike his experience in the theatre, that in the film industry was a far from happy one. In 1935, he was asked to star in ‘ Sanders of the River’ , a US film directed by Zoltan Korda and based on the stories of Edgar Wallace. He accepted the role of Bosambo in the film, as it tied in with his burgeoning interest in African culture. He saw film as a unique vehicle for putting across the idea that a black man can have dignity and integrity. He felt that if he could portray the Nigerian leader, Bosambo, with cultural accuracy and dignity, and that he could help audiences—especially black audiences—understand and respect the roots of black culture. The film makers even took the unusual step towards authenticity by also filming on location in remote areas of Africa to record traditional African dances and ceremonies.
After filming, Robeson was asked back to the studio for retakes of some scenes. He discovered that the film’s message had been changed during editing; it seemed to justify imperialism and upholding the ‘White man’s burden’. Significantly, the finished film was dedicated to ‘the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency’. Bosambo was transformed from a Nigerian leader to a servile lackey of British colonial rule. Robeson was furious and distanced himself from the final product. He was so disillusioned by the picture and his experience with Hollywood that he vowed never again to act in a film in which he had no control over the editing process. However, in 1934, after travelling to Moscow with his wife, Essie and their friend Marie Seton, the actress and critic who was also a friend of Sergei Eisenstein, he once again became inspired by the idea, suggested by Eisenstein, of playing the black Haitian general Toussaint Louverture in a film Eisenstein would direct. Sadly, nothing came of the project beyond the planning stage. During their outward journey, a stopover in Berlin brought home to Robeson the evils of Nazi Germany with its entrenched racism. On his arrival in the USSR, he stated publicly how at home he felt and how relieved he was that his race was ‘an irrelevance’ there.
In 1936, with the outbreak of civil war in Spain, he visited front line troops of the International Brigades fighting on behalf of the Republican government against Franco’s fascist forces. There was a strong contingent from the USA, including a number of black volunteers. There Robeson praised their stand against fascism and gave impromptu concerts to boost morale. His work as an artist was now becoming increasingly interwoven with his political interventions. Back in Britain in 1938, he co-hosted an India League meeting in support of Indian independence at London’s Kingsway Hall, together with Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru and Robeson spoke on internationalism and the need for unified action against the rise of Fascism.
Robeson’s only really successful voyage into the film world was in The Proud Valley, made in Britain in 1940 and produced by Sir Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios. Much of it was filmed on location in the South Wales coalfield and tells the story of a black American miner and singer who gets a job in a pit and joins a male voice choir. Documenting the harsh realities of the miners’ lives, it gave Robeson a life-long love and respect for the Welsh miners and their culture.
David Goliath, a black American, arrives in Wales and wins the respect of the musically oriented Welsh people through his singing. He shares the hardships of their lives, and becomes a working class hero as he helps to better their working conditions and ultimately, during a mining accident, sacrifices his life to save fellow miners. For Robeson, art and politics were inextricably linked and his singing became an act of defiance against any form of oppression, which is why, when in Britain, he bonded so easily with the Welsh miners.
The period in which Robeson was reaching maturity as an artist, was also one which saw the rise of the New York Harlem Renaissance and the accompanying jazz scene during the mid-1920s. It was also a time that saw the burgeoning of a conscious struggle for civil rights. Black leaders like Marcus Garvey were helping the black population forge a sense of dignity, which slavery's legacy had ripped from their souls. Garvey's organisation, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), promoted education, engineering, science and the slogan, “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish whatever you will”. The period also saw increasing activity of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) in which Robeson would play a leading role. Here he met and forged a close friendship with the great American civil rights campaigner and theoretician, W.E.B. du Bois, who was editor of the NAACP's journal ‘The Crisis’. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life. He was also, like Robeson, an ardent peace activist. The United States' Civil Rights Act of 1964, which embodied many of the reforms for which du Bois had campaigned throughout his life, was enacted a year after his death.
Robeson and du Bois attended the fifth, and final, Pan-African Congress, in Manchester in 1945. That was the most productive of the five such congresses, and its final declaration urged colonial and subject peoples of the world to unite and assert their rights and to reject those seeking to control their destinies. Congress participants encouraged colonised Africans to elect their own governments, arguing that the gain of political power for colonial and subject peoples was a necessary prerequisite for complete social, economic, and political emancipation. Future African leaders who attended were Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Trinidadian George Padmore, Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta and Malawi’s Hastings Banda, with all of whom Robeson forged close relationships. While living and working in Britain he also met other African and Third World leaders from the colonial nations with whom he maintained close contact.
From the late thirties onwards Robeson, already finding himself ever more involved in political issues, revaluated the direction of his career and decided to focus attention on utilising his talents to promote causes he cherished.
While in London he also began taking a keen interest in the work of London’s Unity Theatre. Unity was a theatre club formed in 1936 that had grown out of the Workers' Theatre Movement . It was an attempt to bring contemporary social and political issues to a working class audience; it introduced plays by, about and for workers. Robeson subsequently appeared in Plant in the Sun by Herbert Marshall at Unity, alongside a young Alfie Bass among other, later, well-known figures from the theatre world.
At the end of the war in 1945 he was invited to sing to US troops in Europe, and did so to unsegregated audiences - unprecedented at the time. But that was the last time he was to receive official invitations to sing. However, that didn’t stop him appearing at countless civil rights and trade union events, on demonstrations, picket lines and peace gatherings.
With the entrenchment of the Cold War in the fifties following the ‘hot’ war, throughout the fifties, Robeson was increasingly marginalised, snubbed and black-listed. His passport was sequestered by the US government and he was prevented from travelling abroad between 1950 and 1958. Vilified as a tool of Soviet communism, work dried up, his income fell and he disappeared from public view. Although he regained some of his former renown outside the USA after he was allowed to travel again after 1958, his health and mental state had suffered considerably and he never truly recovered his earlier élan, energy and optimism.
For those fortunate enough to have seen Robeson on stage and heard him sing, the impression of his towering personality and charisma remained with them as a once in a lifetime experience. Robeson radiated a strong magnetism combined with a profound humanity seldom experienced with another artist. However, despite rapturous and ecstatic applause wherever he performed, he died a broken man unable to comprehend or cope with the hatred engendered by the US government and his enemies. His uncompromising ethical stance and conviction of the rightness of his ideas made it difficult if not impossible for him to find accommodation with those whose sole intention had been to destroy him and eradicate his name from history.
Books about Paul Robeson:
Paul Robeson Speaks – writings, speeches, interviews 1918-1974 edited by Philip Foner
Here I Strand, autobiography by Paul Robeson