The underappreciated life story of the legendary Paul Robeson is indeed a compelling one. Born into an ex-slave preacher's family at the end of the 19th century, Robeson would go on to become a college-educated star athlete, actor, and, most famously, an iconic singer. He achieved all this during a period in history when most African-Americans struggled to exist under withering Jim Crow segregation and homegrown racist terrorism. Starring in stage and film productions of Showboat, Emperor Jones, and Othello among many others on both sides of the Atlantic were among his great accomplishments.
Robeson was also an activist who fought not only for civil rights but also more expansively for human rights. He chose as his vehicle for change the ideas of communism at a time when many Americans were frightened of such radicalism. Strong in his convictions, Robeson would face a multitude of challenges and damage to his career and reputation, such that even today he must struggle undeservingly to claim his place in American history. Miriam Jensen Hendrix's new play, Robeson, attempts to dramatize the life struggles of the glory years of his career. While his story demands to be told for a new generation, this adaptation never quite succeeds in theatrically showing the dynamic conflicts of his life.
The play focuses on Robeson (Ezra Knight)'s life during the 1930s through the 1950s, when he was in the spotlight not only for his performances, but also for his political activities. After spending years performing in Europe, he returns to the US and discusses with family and friends his growing appreciation for communism as a force to address both racism and classism. His businesslike wife Essie (Abena Koomson) takes issue with Paul over his politics for the damage it will do to his career and their economic livelihood. His minister brother Ben (Ronald Wyche) takes issue with communism's lack of respect for religion, which interestingly goes against the grain of their family heritage. Both are concerned about the political consequences of an African-American promoting communism in a racist country that is also fearful of left-wing politics.
Paul holds fast to his beliefs in spite of the risks and, as a result, suffers hardships both personal and professional. Robeson would become estranged from his wife (who ironically becomes an activist in her own right) and would become a hounded target of reactionary forces of the 1950s like J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Making speeches, supporting workers, and crafting his performances to serve his communist agenda wound up costing him his passport, his ability to get gigs, his physical and economic health, and even support of prominent black leaders of the civil rights movement. With all this pressure on him, Paul would still defiantly speak his truth before the HUAC hearings, while his career and his optimism began to fade.
Limitations of Hendrix's text were a central cause in not bringing this story more fully to life. While Robeson clearly faced a host of conflicts, this weakly structured dramatization did not craft them into a heightened struggle. Instead, there was an emphasis on including real-life exposition from his life and times, with a rather non-flowing and melodramatic shaping of his interpersonal challenges. The text also excluded potentially interesting interactions between the civil rights leaders who negated him and ordinary African Americans whom he allegedly abandoned and did not represent. Robeson's linear struggle was threatened to be undermined by the potentially more interesting character of Essie, who grew from strict pragmatist to practical activist.
Keith Oncale's direction created a modestly interesting biopic out of the script, but did not divine from it the kind of theatricality that would raise the production from the expected to the extraordinary. Performances were roundly passionate but a mixed bag, in part, due to the two-dimensional nature of many of the characterizations. Ezra Knight's Robeson was a standout with his excellent capturing of Paul's mannerisms and deeply felt intransigence. Gregory Tippit's set design was a curious mixture of a multi-level gray playing space complemented by anachronistic "shaky camera" video clips, which unevenly added to the stage action.
(Also featuring Roy Bacon, Annmarie Benedict, Korey Jackson, Bruce Kronenberg, Robert Lydiard, John Marino, Vince Phillip, Tyrone Robinson, W. Emory Rose, and Dathan B. Williams.)
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Copyright 2005 Adam Cooper