at The Riverfront Theatre, Newport
The subject of Tayo Aluko’s one-man touring production, Call, Mr Robeson: A Life, With Songs, is the eponymous linguist, actor, singer, racial and social rights’ activist, Paul Robeson, considered by many an American hero, albeit a tragic, mistrusted and widely misunderstood one.
A forerunner of black consciousness and, arguably, paver of path for a series of Hollywood’s black actors, from Sidney Poitier to Denzel Washington, Harry Belafonte attributes even his own foray into the fold of folk music to Robeson’s influence. At his height, Robeson was starring in major films such as Sanders of the River and Body and Soul, performing to packed auditoriums and working increasingly on his own terms. This, at a time, when Jim Crow Laws stamped clear divisive lines upon public policy and minds.
Aluko’s performance presents a broad, multi-faceted and impassioned picture of a deeply complex man. The audience gains insight into Robeson’s marriage to Eslanda Robeson, ‘Essie’, whilst picking up hints of various indiscretions. We learn of stands he took against organisers of shows with segregated seating. He claimed to speak 24 languages and thought of thousands of miles travelling in terms of dozens of books reading.
Resonantly, the performance touches with poignancy upon Robeson’s special relationship with Welsh miners. It was in London, 1928, after a West End performance of Show Boat, that the sound of singing unemployed Welsh miners who had walked along the A40 came to Robeson’s ears. He ended up buying the miners supper and it was around this time that he began thinking of the working class struggle as indistinct from the black struggle. The Proud Valley remained one of the self-critical Robeson’s favourite films of his own.
Ultimately, it was the Soviet connection that cost Robeson his credibility and career. Aluko’s performance makes clear all that Robeson found good within the Soviet Union, to the extent that he sent his son there to study. The script contextualizes the tensions of the period well and places Robeson astutely within the simmering pot of the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement. References to figures such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King jnr, W.E.B. Dubois and Malcolm X emerge from the script in a natural way.
The performance reveals with deftness the ascension of Robeson’s radicalism and outspokenness met, in turn, by unforgiving travel restrictions, FBI surveillance and performance boycotts. It was during such time, in 1957, that, unable to travel, Robeson spoke to the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl via a telephone link. However, his situation was grave and at one point, even the NAACP began forging an official distance from him.
Robeson’s descent into paranoia and despair are acted with some conviction. This is felt more so during Robeson’s appearance against the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The ebony black, African spirit Aluko invokes for strength against the barracking inquisition of recorded voices is a powerful presence, aided by the simplicity of staging and strategic lighting.
The singing is honest and hearty. By his own admission, Aluko is a Nigerian baritone not an American bass, but it makes little difference to his resounding rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’. Higher levels of engagement with ‘Harriet’, played by pianist Cornelia Rahdes, would have strengthened the musical part of the production still further.
It is saddening that today Paul Robeson’s legacy has not seemingly kept pace with that of some of his pioneering counterparts. Call Mr Robeson is an informative and inspiring production that tries to make good this gap in popular political cognisance, and it succeeds.
Call Mr Robeson is currently on tour
photo credits requested