Black History Speaks
I first heard Paul Robeson's voice during the folk revival of the early 1960s, the days when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were ascendant. Someone had put together a disc of folk songs from earlier in the century that included Robeson singing "Get on Board, Little Children." It was an unforgettable voice, dark and deep as the ocean, and full of kindly, protective authority. I could see the boat of the song, which seemed to be rocking on that great sound, and the line of hitherto lost children climbing the gangplank. I knew a little about Paul Robeson -- that he was a famed actor and singer, that he stood up against fascism wherever he found it -- and somehow the song got linked in my mind with all the Jewish children who'd been sent into what their families hoped was safety during World War II.
Philip Hayes Dean's Paul Robeson is a one-man play being staged by Shadow Theatre Company as part of Black History Month. It has the limitations of its genre: It's a little static; it requires one actor to hold the stage for well over two hours; it's not a warts-and-all biography, but purely hagiographic. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful evening of theater. And if any American ever deserved to be venerated, it's Paul Robeson -- for his intellect, artistry and athleticism, and most of all for the passion for justice that burned through his actions. These days, when small-souled politicians pretend to the mantle of greatness using marketing techniques and an army of yapping broadcasters, it's refreshing to contemplate the life of someone genuinely heroic.
At the play's beginning, Robeson, age 75, is preparing a tape to send to an event being held at Carnegie Hall in his honor. We learn about his difficulties with racism while a student and football player at Rutgers. After getting a law degree at Columbia University, Robeson joined a law firm. He left because, among other things, the white secretaries refused to take dictation from him. He became a part of the Harlem Renaissance. He performed in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. Then the musical Showboat took him to London, where he found a culture more congenial than his own. In America, he was "an exotic," he says in the play, while in England, "I am considered an actor, an athlete and, most important, a scholar."
But in 1934, Robeson traveled to Berlin with his wife, Essie, to meet a Jewish friend. Within minutes of disembarking from the train, he learned that his friend's child, a dwarf, had been taken away by fascists; the friend had come to the station only to tell him this and to warn him to leave. As he and Essie stood on the platform, a group of Brownshirts converged on them. Robeson secured their escape through a willful show of rage and defiance, a desperately calculated piece of acting.
After a visit to Russia, where he met Stanislavsky and Sergei Eisenstein, Robeson turned his attention to the fight against Franco in Spain. "I felt I was being born in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War," he said. But when he began setting up a series of fundraising concerts in England, he discovered that his friends in the British aristocracy had a nasty affinity for the fascist cause.
Robeson eventually returned to America. He played Othello on Broadway. He also learned that African-American soldiers returning to the South from World War II were met by lynch mobs -- as had those who returned from World War I. Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and eventually blacklisted. His passport was confiscated. The result was "my being erased from the consciousness of the American people."
It goes without saying that the success of this play depends on the actor playing the central role, and Russell Costen's performance is superb. Robeson was a physically imposing figure, a tall and powerful man, while Costen is shorter and has a less resonant voice. Nonetheless, Costen finds Robeson's gravitas, his measured vocal cadences, the occasional deep rumble in the bass. His timing is impeccable, and he isn't afraid to let a few silent seconds pass when necessary. Invisible characters sometimes inhabit the stage -- as they must in a one-person play -- and he makes these characters feel real, giving us the voices of a New York secretary, an English aristocrat, a German Jew. This is a highly skilled performance, but it isn't only about skill. It is a generous and openhearted act of tribute.
The production is a triumph for Costen and for director Michael R. Duran. It is also a triumph for the Shadow Theatre Company, which, under company founder and producer Jeffrey Nickelson, works consistently to discover those elements of the human spirit that transcend barriers of race, place and time. Don't miss it.
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