nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
April 15, 2005
Paul Robeson, one of America’s great actors and concert performers of the 1930s and '40s, fell out of favor later in his life due to the public’s interpretation of his views on Communism during the Cold War. Miriam Jensen Hendrix’s play Robeson explores his life and career, from its pinnacle to his downfall.
The play begins in 1935, when Robeson returns from Europe with his wife after having stayed there for a couple of years. As he tells a group of reporters at the airport and later explains to his brother in more specific detail, his experiences in Europe have changed him profoundly. He says that there, especially in Russia, he was treated as a full human being for the first time in his life. The profundity of this change and how it ignites Robeson’s passion to change things in America for black people is the heart of Hendrix’s play and serves as an interesting and successful through-line for what Hendrix is saying about his character.
The play progresses through the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the political witch-hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s. As Robeson begins speaking publicly about how he feels that lynchings and Jim Crow inequality are the true enemies to America, not Communism, he catches the politicians’ attention and they put him under surveillance, eventually taking away his passport and having him testify at the hearings. Robeson also has a hard time getting his message across within the black community, partially because he refuses to join the NAACP and partially because of the Communist/Socialist bent of his message.
The play does a good job of not deifying Robeson, making him a fully-dimensional character. Robeson is a womanizer and has at least one long-term affair with a woman outside his marriage. He is also out of touch with his son, Paul, Jr., and his wife, and apparently somewhat irresponsible with money.
Ezra Knight, as Robeson, is simply fantastic. His looks, his stature, and especially his voice all say “star,” but more than that, he clearly conveys a deeply developed understanding of his character’s motivations. His acting works on many levels, using humor, arrogance, passion, anger, and even confusion to good effect.
Abena Koomson is wonderful as Essie Robeson, Paul’s wife. She has a deep loyalty to Paul even as he betrays her, yet it is clear she is hurt, angry, and vulnerable. Interestingly, Essie also gives lectures and works for the movement for equal rights. Even though, in this play, Essie’s story takes a secondary role, I give credit to the play for making it clear that Essie has a career as a public speaker and story in her own right.
Bruce Kronenberg, as Senator McCarthy, is rightly scary and the rest of the supporting cast is great for the most part. Among them, Korey Jackson stands out as Jason Clay, a young reporter.
Throughout the play, there are video sequences, credited to Shawn Washburn, that show speeches, close-ups, and dialogue. The set, a two-level structure that works as a home, an airport, a courtroom, a meeting room, and other locations, is well-designed by Gregory Tippit.
Over all, Robeson works as an interesting story about American history regarding such subjects as racism, the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in America, and the McCarthy hearings.