Call Mr Robeson
The Moorings, 31 Glenbervie Terrace, Wellington
Until 1st March.
Tickets $18/$14 0800 BUY TIX
Reviewed by Daniel Simpson Beck.
Call Mr. Robeson is written and performed by Tayo Aluko. Through monologue and song, he brings to life the memory of a man who the American ruling class would rather we forgot.
Paul Robeson, born in New Jersey, USA in 1898, was a man who excelled in many different areas; athletics, law, singing, acting and languages to name but a few. He won a scholarship to Rutgers University and was one of only two black students thoughout his four years there. He excelled in his studies and became one of the best footballers of the time. But it was singing and acting, in movies such as Show Boat in 1936, that brought him worldwide fame. He was one of the world’s leading concert singers in the 1930s and 1940s. He starred in Othello in what became and remains the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. So why were his name and achievements omitted from countless books about the history of American musicians and actors? In Call Mr. Robeson we learn that it was his passion for politics that lead the ruling elite to try and obliterate him from the history books.
He was inspired by the socialist politics of the Soviet Union. He even sent his son to school there in an effort to shield him from the racism so prevalent in the US. Robeson had deep illusions in Stalin and Stalinism, and Aluko’s play doesn’t shy away from these more problematic aspects of his legacy.
Tayo recounts how Robeson had made political comments to media in Europe that were subject to spin by American media when he arrived home. Though Paul was caught offguard by the angles the reporters were taking, he was quick on his feet and proudly explained his position. The play brings these political controversies to life.
But a black man pointing out the racism in his own country doesn’t go down well with the perpetrators of that racism. Robeson was attacked on the way to a concert in Peekskill. His audience was attacked and the concert had to be postponed for a week. For the second attempt he and his audience were protected by trade unionists. It was inspiring to hear Tayo’s rendition of Ol’ Man River, his voice competing with the ominous sound of a police helicopter above.
Robeson was a great supporter of trade unions. In his travels he would go out of his way to meet with unionists and support them in their particular struggles. Right here in Wellington in 1960 he met with striking dockside workers and spoke in defence of Maori and the working class.
He recognised the need for workers to unite in their struggle against the ruling class and he encouraged them wherever he could. The ruling class responded by having him blacklisted and his passport revoked. His income dropped dramatically and his love of travel was stifled.
Yet he defiantly found a way to sing to Canadians – by singing across the border itself!
He was subject to the McCarthy era witchhunts. He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 where he was asked “why didn’t you stay in Russia?”
Tayo’s Robeson felt the inspiration of Mother Africa when he defiantly retorted “because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”
Paul Robeson was a forerunner of what became known as the Civil Rights Movement. He fought for the rights, not only of blacks, but of oppressed peoples everywhere. He recognised and openly pointed the at capitalism as the cause of this oppression, and for this, his story has been systematically deleted from American history books. Tayo Aluko does a great service by bringing Paul Robeson’s story to life.
Call Mr Robeson is a great piece of theatre, and an exploration of a fine musical legacy. Aluko is ably accompanied on piano by local musician Julian Raphael, and brings Robeson to life.
Thank you to the Maritime Union of New Zealand and the Public Service Association for their generosity in helping bring this show to Aotearoa.