"What do you know about Paul Robeson?" internationally renowned baritone Anthony Brown asked writer Andrew Flack a few years back. "I know a little, but show me your notes," Flack responded. It was New Year's Eve, and the two men began talking about Robeson's life, his music, his political struggles and how he was taken down by the powers-that-be. "Maybe we could work together to make a piece," Flack said, signing on to script the project. The result, I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson's Life in His Words and Songs, directed by donnie l. betts and starring Brown, opens Friday, February 28, at the Aurora Fox Arts Center. Westword recently spoke with Flack about Robeson's legacy and writing the script for the production.
See also: 100 Colorado Creatives: donnie l. betts
Westword: Talk about why you were interested in working on a project about Paul Robeson.
Andrew Flack: Robeson's really inspiring. Tony Brown, the fellow who commissioned me to write this piece, said, growing up in Pittsburgh, his parents had a lot of 78 records around the house, and that's how he learned of Paul Robeson. His parents would speak of this man, this singer, whom they'd never met, in such a reverential way. They spoke of him as this bigger-than-life man, which fascinated Tony, because there weren't that many African American role-models you could say that about.
We're lucky to be telling this story. Because Robeson's legacy has been neutralized, a lot of people don't know about him. People who leave our shows, they say, "Oh, my gosh. I had no idea who this guy was, what he represented and what he became. He was an unbelievable guy, and he got hammered by the powers-that-be."
What was his story?
Paul Robeson was a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. In the 1920s and 1930s, he put his life, his career, everything on the line to champion human rights all around the world. He traveled extensively; he sang for the workers. In this country, he was part of the civil rights movement. He is a forgotten hero, and they tried to erase him, and when I say "they," I mean the powers-that-be, the right-wing elite, the Joseph McCarthys and the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world. They demonized him and tried to erase him from American history.
Robeson was the valedictorian of Rutgers University class of 1919. He was one of only three African-American students there. He was All American in football twice and played professional football before the NFL. After Rutgers, he got his law degree at Columbia in the early '20s. Then he tried to go to work, and he had an incident. His secretary, in this New York law firm, said I'm not going to take shorthand from an n-word guy. Robeson was good-looking and talented as a singer and an actor. In the '30s, he went on to be the first African-American to play Othello on Broadway. He got unbelievable reviews. In 1936, he was in the movie Showboat. "Old Man River" became a song that would be forever his; that was his signature song.
How did World War II play into Robeson's career?
In the 1930s, fascism was on the rise. Mussolini and Hitler were coming to power, and Robeson was an antifascist. He went to Spain and sang for the troops that were fighting Franco, the fascist dictator. He went to Wales and sang for the coal miners who were not being paid at all. He was a man of the people. When Hitler came to power, Robeson supported the U.S. war movement. He sold hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of war bonds. Then 1949 came. The government started tapping his phone. Here he was, a black man and an intellectual on the people's side, a populace guy. In 1949, it all came down. McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover accused him of being a communist. He claimed he had never been a Communist; he was a socialist for sure, but not a communist, but that didn't matter. He was blacklisted. The pressure was put on radio and TV stations not to have him on. Then the government took his passport. For eight years, he was held hostage in this country. He couldn't sing. He couldn't make a living.
Read on to find out how Robeson may have been drugged by the CIA and how Flack approached writing the script.
After those eight years were up, what happened to him?
In 1958, he got his passport back and went on a world tour to sold-out audiences. He sold out six performances at Carnegie Hall in two hours. They say they turned a thousand people away. By then, he was sixty years old and on the downward side of his career, but he did travel. In 1962, he was in London. They had a party in his suite. It's believed he was dosed by the CIA or the FBI. He was given a psychedelic drug and overdosed. From that time on, from 1962 until 1974, when he died, he was never the same. He went into severe depression and had psychosis. He had dozens of electroshock treatments. In 1962, he was pretty much neutralized by our government. That's what a lot of people think, anyway. It's never been proven, but it's been written up by his biographers and in scholarly works about him. He was a shell of a man after that. He never regained his vitality.
The guy that arranged the music, Tony Brown and I, we met with Pete Seeger. We interviewed him on videotape. Seeger has three video appearances in the play, because he knew Robeson. He talks about their friendship and the world at that time. It was Pete who said, "You have to put that in about him being dosed." I said, "I don't know," for the longest time. In our last couple performances, I've put in a couple lines about how some believe the CIA dosed him and how he had received dozens of electroshock treatments and was never the same after that. His son really believed it, too, and still does.
He was doing so much good in the world, but he was neutered. He was neutered by the dominant culture of the United States; his legacy has not been permitted to thrive. It's been nipped in the bud. That's part of why we're doing this show.
Talk about how you researched Robeson's story and approached the material.
I read everything I could get my hands on. I watched his movies; the movies aren't great, because they didn't know how to use a black person back then except for stereotypes and exploitation. I did two months of research and then I thought, "How am I going to get into him?" Then I thought of The Belle of Amherst, written by my friend Bill Luce. I went back, and I read that. It was perfect. The Belle of Amherst is this one-woman show about Emily Dickinson. Bill used a lot of first-hand stuff from letters and journals. I had a lot of that material for Robeson. It gave me a clue; it gave me a way in; it gave me a way to pick stories and pick material that showed the inner person, the inner man of Robeson, the psychological things, rather than just the facts. It added emotional depth and emotional content that really makes it a drama and gives it a dramatic, personal feel.
Tell me a little bit about the history of the production itself.
It took about eight months to write the first draft of the script. We engaged a musical director, composer and arranger named Paul Fowler who did the score. It's gorgeous. The thing I like about the show is that we didn't do it once and stick it in a drawer, or do it twice and say, that was nice. It's growing. There is more energy around it now and more interest in it now than ever. It's such an important show because this guy, he was a great human being. He was a big human being. And nobody knows about him.
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I Go On Singing plays at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue at 7:30 p.m. February 28, March 1 and March 8; there are also 2 p.m. matinees on March 2 and March 9. Tickets are $26; buy them on the Aurora Fox Arts Center website or call 303-739-1970.