The Resurrection of Paul Robeson:
“Paul Robeson” At The
Nate Holden Performing Arts Center
Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
For an artist of Paul Robeson’s stature—except that there is no artist of Paul Robeson’s stature—to have become a stranger in his own land is one of the more improbable stories of a so-called free society. At one time the most famous performer in America—star of stage (Othello), screen (Show Boat), radio (Ballad for Americans), author (Here I Stand) and recording artist (for Columbia and Vanguard Records), Robeson strode across the American landscape like a colossus. No one would have been surprised to learn that he was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar at Rutgers, a two-time All-American football player and the toast of British Aristocracy after making his debut singing Ol’ Man River in Show Boat in London’s West End in 1927. He was declared “the Voice of the Century” long before the 20th Century was over—sharing that title with Marian Anderson.
And then his left-wing politics in general and sympathy for our one-time ally The Soviet Union in particular put him on a collision course with the powers that be—including the US State Department—which declared him “the most dangerous man in American” and revoked his passport in 1950—and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—which subpoenaed him to testify on June 12, 1956, during which he became an unfriendly witness after refusing to name names or denounce the Communist Party. His heroic stand in maintaining his own brand of patriotism (having recorded a modern patriotic classic The House I Live In—before Frank Sinatra) and denouncing the committee as fascist resulted in his becoming a non-person in his own country (except for the Old Left, which welcomed him as a hero) and seeing his income reduced from over $100,000 a year to $2,000 a year—hardly enough for him and his wife Essie to live on. His records and autobiography were removed from book shelves and libraries, a year’s worth of concert bookings cancelled, and most troublingly, his name removed from the sports records books during his years at Rutgers—revising history in precisely the same way the Soviet Union had been known to do for their own dissident authors and performers. Through Robeson we had begun to mimic the very enemy he was accused of supporting—and this one-time All-American—as the new revival of Phillip Hayes Dean’s Broadway play Paul Robeson reminds us—had become the “Un-American.”
In a remarkable concatenation of seemingly unrelated events Dean’s obituary appeared the same weekend another play about Robeson’s epic life—The Tallest Tree in the Forest—just reviewed in these pages—opened at the Mark Taper Forum in the Music Center—and his best-known play was extended for another week—after it was postponed due to its star Keith David’s trick knee going out on him. So from no Robeson Los Angeles was suddenly blessed with two very different but complementary Paul Robeson’s appearing simultaneously on the same weekend across town from each other.
Of course, I had to see both of them and like John Donne’s Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star “If thou be’st born to strange sights” have returned to tell you what I saw.
The simplest way to describe them is that the Mark Taper Forum’s production is Robeson for white folks (I counted fewer than ten black people in the nearly sold-out audience of 750 on Opening Night) and the Ebony Repertory Theatre production is Robeson for black folks (with fewer than ten white people in the close-to-capacity crowd of 297). If you want to see America in black and white in the 21st Century’s so-called “post-racial” society Los Angeles is the place to be—and these two versions of Paul Robeson are the plays to see. It’s a revelation about both how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. Because in Robeson’s vision of an interracial America we wouldn’t still have “the black part of town” at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on W. Washington Blvd and “the white part of town” at the Music Center on Temple and Grand, where a chocolate chip cookie during intermission cost $4.50, a beer cost $8, a plastic glass of wine cost $9, and a small plastic tray with cheese and crackers and a couple of grapes cost a whopping $9.50.
If Paul Robeson’s commitment to racial justice for all people is a symbol of hope it is a symbol that has yet to be realized. But the fact that his life is now being celebrated on two different fronts in the same city is a tell-tale sign that his message and voice still matter. This Robeson revival (in both senses) could not have come at a more opportune time to a city more needing to hear them. They are the right plays at the right time—and to fully understand the one you need to see them both—in the context of the society Robeson tried mightily and failed to change. But neither did that society change him.
To my mind and ear, Keith David’s pitch-perfect performance more easily inhabits Robeson’s warm-hearted spirit. One almost had the feeling after seeing his “Paul Robeson” “Oh, this is the man that Daniel Beaty was playing at the Taper last night.” As much as his innate vocal timbre, one physical gesture drove the point home—his left hand cupped just behind his ear while singing Joe Hill—Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes signature labor anthem missing from The Tallest Tree in the Forest. That hand gesture probably helped Robeson to hear his own voice—almost like a monitor microphone to enable him to control his pitch and volume—especially when singing—as he so often did—in impromptu performance situations far removed from the concert halls that made him a star—such as mass outdoor political rallies, demonstrations and street marches. You can find it on the definitive Vanguard album box set Scandalize My Name.
Keith David’s portrayal of Robeson also benefitted enormously from the on-stage presence of his named life-long accompanist pianist Lawrence “Larry” Brown, portrayed with self-effacing charm and musical taste and depth by Byron J. Smith. Working in tandem made all of the musical selections sound true and reminiscent of the originals.
This production was directed by its author Phillip Hayes Dean—his first project for the Ebony Repertory Theatre and his final work before passing away last Monday, April 14th. It’s a wonderful swan song to have ended on, since it was his Broadway production of the same play that premiered in 1978 two years after Robeson himself passed away. It starred James Earl Jones—without question a hard act to follow, though not Dean’s favorite actor. According to the LA Times’ story on Saturday (which my editor Leda Shapiro called to my attention) the Broadway opening was also controversial for the most surprising reason imaginable—not because Robeson himself was still controversial, but on the contrary because Dean’s portrait of him was not controversial enough and was met with actual picket lines of black writers such as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou protesting that Robeson’s politics were not sufficiently in evidence and in effect he was being dumbed down for commercial consumption on Broadway. Current star Keith David indicated to the LA Times that he had to cross that picket line in order to see the play. As a card-carrying member of Local 47 I therefore find myself in unfamiliar territory. On the one hand, I am glad he did and discovered this extraordinary play for himself and on the other I doubt that had it been me, I could have looked James Baldwin in the eye as I did so. But the larger question remains: is this a soft-focus less politically charged version of America’s most political artist and the one who paid the highest price for having the courage of his convictions? Having now seen it, I for one, did not feel shortchanged.
David, in the role-of-a-lifetime, faced the Goliath of the repressive American machinery of the State Department and HUAC—both of which managed to destroy his career and prevent him from traveling abroad—where he had become the most famous American performer on three continents: Europe (including the Soviet Union), Africa and the Americas. He spoke and sang in 20 languages and had a worldwide audience that included the volunteers from the International Brigades in Spain who had come in there in December, 1936 to risk and in many cases lose their lives in defense of the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascism and his military supporters in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Robeson was drawn to their cause—along with 3,000 members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from the United States—1500 of whom died in Spain. Robeson sang for them on Spanish soil and lifted their spirits with songs like Los Cuatros Generales (Four Insurgent Generals) which David sang last night in Spanish with passion and conviction. It was a heart-stopping moment in a play with many of them—including his eloquent rendition of Joe Hill for the workers in Salt Lake, Utah, where the IWW troubadour had been executed on November 19, 1915.
Robeson’s dramatic appearance before HUAC was also recreated in all its rancorous glory as Robeson stood up to Chairman Francis Walters with extraordinary defiance in defense of his political beliefs and gave his own father’s legacy as a slave as the reason he would never leave this country when the grand inquisitors invited him to “move to Russia if he liked it so much.” “My father worked to build this country with his bare hands and bare back, and no House Committee on Un-American Activities is going to make me leave it,” replied Robeson, displaying Hemingway’s grace under pressure.
Late in Phillip Hayes Dean’s majestic portrait of a great American artist far ahead of his time he uses a stunning visual detail to conclude the story on what radio pioneer Norman Corwin (who produced Robeson’s signature radio drama Ballad for Americans) once called A Note of Triumph—rather than the clarion sound of Robeson’s instantly recognizable voice. Standing at the microphone circa 1958—when the United States Supreme Court finally restored his right to travel and sing abroad—David simply puts his hand in his coat pocket and withdraws his official green-bound US Passport. He doesn’t have to say a word; the symbol of freedom speaks eloquently for itself.
Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? he had sung early on; in the midst of having been crucified for his political stands it seemed he was speaking about himself. “Happy Easter,” I said to Jill; “we may be witnessing the resurrection of Paul Robeson.”
As he sang his final song, another old Negro Spiritual—Jacob’s Ladder—he invited the audience to sing along—and we joyously did:
We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder
Soldiers of the cross.
Our grateful standing ovation told the rest of the story—but for an audience member behind us who summed up both Paul Robeson and “Paul Robeson” in one word: “Bravo!”
“Paul Robeson” continues through next Sunday, April 27. See Ebony Repertory Theatre website for information and tickets.
Ross Altman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org