Spotlites (Venue 278)
Aug 23, 25, 27
1 hour 20 minutes
Dirt & Candy described this show as: “A brilliantly put together history lesson delivered as art.”
Tayo Aluko who plays Robeson certainly informs us about the famous US Communist and Civil Rights campaigner who was also internationally acclaimed as an entertainer. Like Robeson himself this show entertains and informs.
Call Mr Robeson depicts a complex man. A man who loved his wife Essie but conducted numerous affairs. A man who sang spirituals in churches but was a Communist. A man of incredible intelligence who was fooled by the lure of Soviet Communism under Stalin. Someone who sang songs (including Ol’ Man River with use of the ‘N-word’) and acted in films (Ilike Sanders of the River) with politically questionable lyrics and assumptions but used the fame these gave him to construct a platform to condemn the very same.
For me his attraction to Stalinism is the most difficult thing to reconcile with his many fine qualities. As late as April 1953, shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death he wrote a eulogy entitled To You Beloved Comrade for the New World Review, in which he praised Stalin’s “deep humanity,” “wise understanding,” and dedication to peaceful co-existence with all peoples of the world calling him “wise and good”. There is little evidence that he ever revised his view of either the Soviet Union or Stalin.
The show takes us through his life using framed pictures of loved ones as props on a set with Soviet, International Brigade, Welsh, US and British flags.
Robeson was a talented man, a professional footballer, an accomplished orator, a lawyer and a singer and actor. He was deeply influenced and guided by his father (at one time a slave who becae a Pastor). Yet this remarkable man was born into a country where he would often be judged not on his ability or character but the colour of his skin.
Aluko plays Robeson engagingly in a conversational style punctuated by renditions of songs like Old Man River and The Battle of Jericho. Robeson faces many trials and tribulations because of his sincerely held beliefs. His income fell dramatically as a result of cancelled contracts and bookings on account of his outspoken opinions. He suffered FBI surveillance and harassment and had travel restrictions placed on him. His right to travel was only finally restored by the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles. We should recall, however, that dissidents in the Soviet Union at the time were treated somewhat more harshly!
Robeson was a man who seldom backed down. When he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee he was defiant. He refused to sign an affidavit affirming he was not a Communist instead taking the fifth (the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution giving the right to not incriminate yourself). He also gave them an ear-bashing!
The songs are great and although Aluko is, I think, a baritone and Robeson a bass he does a fine job of performing them. I particularly liked his performance of the Battle of Jericho (which I remembered fondly from attending services at the Meropolitan Tabernacle in London when young).
I really enjoyed the performance from Aluko and learning more about Paul Robeson. It was great to see this depiction of a strong, intelligent man who, though not without flaws, remained steadfast in his belief (even in the face of adversity) that a better world was possible.
Reviewed by Patrick Harrington