Call Mr. Robeson
nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
August 24, 2011
Paul Robeson was a man of extraordinary, wide-ranging talents and undeniable courage. He was a towering figure, literally and figuratively, in entertainment and the civil rights movement. He is an important figure in American history and an intelligent subject for a show in this year's FringeNYC.
To write and perform a one-man show based on Robeson's performing career and political activism could be considered a daunting task, but Tayo Aluko has risen to the challenge and done a wonderful job. He gives an impassioned, dignified performance as Robeson.
Robeson was a Renaissance man excelling mightily as a college and professional football player, then singing to sold-out concert halls and on radio stations throughout the country. He excelled in leading roles as an actor on stage and film (The Emperor Jones, Show Boat and Othello, for example) when African American actors were rarely given such opportunities in the United States. He is often cited as a respected, pioneering role model by accomplished African American performers and civil rights activists who have succeeded him.
In addition to his incredible performing talents, he was an outspoken critic of racial discrimination and American politics. He made countless speeches denouncing segregation and lynchings in America. Unfortunately, Robeson's inexhaustible work as a human rights advocate had grave consequences for his performing career. It was his endorsement of the Soviet Union during the Cold War that led to continuous persecution by the U.S. government.
One speech in particular in Paris in 1949 precipitated his being called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and subsequent blacklisting. His passport was revoked by U.S. State Department for his repeated criticism of the inequitable treatment of African Americans in this country.
Aluko's script gives a well-balanced biography of Robeson's difficult upbringing and meteoric ascent as a popular football player and Broadway and film star. Aluko alternates between recreating pivotal scenes in Robeson's life with some of his best known songs, sprinkling the text with gentle humor.
Aluko has made a clear decision to side-step a study of Robeson's romantic life, only quietly hinting at some of his extramarital affairs. But the play quite effectively relays how daring Robeson was, focusing on his brilliant career and heroic activism in an era of oppression.
Aluko has an imposing presence and powerful voice evoking the spirit of Robeson's magnetic stage presence. There are moments when Aluko channels Robeson as he preaches for equality just as Robeson himself must have channeled his father, a Presbyterian minister in his day.
Phil Newman provides a simple set with assorted memorabilia from Robeson's life scattered about the stage. Aluko works well with Lila Neiswanger's sound design which provides a variety of effects at critical points in the story. Particularly effective are the pre-recorded voiceovers being peppered at Aluko during a reenactment of the Robeson's interrogation at the hands of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Dennis A. Nelson's piano provides a potent backdrop to the text eloquently accompanying Aluko throughout.
Aluko does an outstanding job bringing an extraordinarily gifted man and civil rights pioneer to this year's FringeNYC. Call Mr. Robeson is a highly respectful exploration of Robeson's brave defiance to speak out against racial injustice and the inequality of social classes.