Tayo Aluko’s profound portrayal of Paul Robeson in Call Mr. Robeson, being performed at PURE Theatre during Piccolo, captures the complexities of a powerful performer and political activist. Blending Robeson’s songs into the narrative, writer and actor Aluko draws on historical research, letters, speeches, and F.B.I. documents since released to the public to reveal a brilliant and multifaceted man. Climbing to the heights of celebrity and world renown, Robeson’s career and reputation suffered from his political activism, rendering him mentally and physically ill, and marginalizing him into obscurity in his own country.
Phil Newman’s set design reflects the character’s lifetime of monumental events. On a stage set with groups of memorabilia, books, boxes, photographs, and flags, accompanist Dr. Gregory Thompson plays a medley of hymns, spirituals, and other songs associated with Robeson on an electric piano. Aluko makes a poignant entrance, dressed in a gray, plaid, double-breasted suit, carrying a burdensome wooden chair on his back. “Nobody knows the troubles I seen / Nobody knows my sorrow,” he sings. Smaller than Robeson in stature, Aluko bears Robeson’s strength, passion, and eloquence.
Without delay, Aluko delves into controversy, singing Robeson’s signature song, “Ol’ Man River,” with the original lyrics as Jerome Kern wrote them in 1927 for the musical Showboat. “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / Niggers all work while the white folk play.” As Aluko illustrates, Robeson loved that song for what it did for his career, but it came to represent for him the racial oppression he experienced and protested for most of his adult life. In later years, Robeson replaced the n-word with “colored folk” and continued to rewrite other lyrics to express the defiance and anger he felt regarding his political struggles.
Call Mr. Roberson, a biographical one-man show, winds through Robeson’s achievements and struggles. The play recounts how racial discrimination and civil rights were constant battles in Robeson’s life, personally and professionally. Robeson’s father, Pops, an escaped slave and Presbyterian minister, served as a source of encouragement and inspiration, during his lifetime and long after his death.
The spiritual “Steal Away” is a touching segue from Pops’s death to Robeson’s “escape” to the Soviet Union, where he felt treated equally for the first time in his life. That visit changed Robeson forever, and set him on a path of political activism, which eventually led to his political persecution by the press, the U.S. federal government, and civic groups, including the NAACP.
As Aluko travels through Robeson’s life, the intensity grows and climaxes with Robeson’s 1942 performance of Swanee River in Kansas City before a segregated audience where he halts the performance and announces: “Jim Crow is alive and well in Kansas City.” In response he sings “Battle of Jericho” with even more determination and defiance, eliciting a hearty applause from the audience of PURE Theatre.
Under Olusola Oyeleye’s direction, Aluko delivers an inspiring performance of an intriguing figure. Newman’s lighting and sound design are effective, particularly in elucidating Robeson’s psychological turmoil during his suicide attempt and his conjuring of Mother Africa, a truly spiritual experience.
By 1968, Robeson was practically forgotten, so much so that he needed to spell his name to a young black reporter who was recording Robeson’s reaction to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Call Mr. Robeson is a tribute to rectify the wrong done to a remarkable man.