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
His admiration for the
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
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
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
Feeling comfortable in
Robeson was to play Othello again in 1959 for the
During his time in
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
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
Sadly, nothing came of the project beyond the planning stage. During their outward journey, a stopover in
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
Robeson’s only really successful voyage into the film world was in The Proud Valley, made in
David Goliath, a black American, arrives in
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
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
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.
At the end of the war in 1945 he was invited to sing to US troops in
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
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
Books about Paul Robeson:
Paul Robeson Speaks – writings, speeches, interviews 1918-1974 edited by Philip Foner
Here I Strand, autobiography by Paul Robeson
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This post was written by John Green