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A Cornucopia of Pauls: Ol’ Man Robeson Keeps Rolling Along

Ed Rampell: The 1st Annual Paul Robeson Theatre Festival presented a well rounded, worthy tribute in honor of its namesake -- the man known as “the tallest tree in the forest” -- and to the theatre company that produced it.
Paul Robeson Theatre Festival

Mohammed Ali Ojarigi (l.), Montell Harvey in "Greenwood 1964"


To paraphrase Shakespeare, “There were more Robesons in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” during the 1st Annual Paul Robeson Theatre Festival staged at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre in Downtown L.A. The two day fete celebrated not only its eponymous artist, but the 20th anniversary of the Robey Theatre Company, which, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to “develop relevant provocative, and innovative new plays written about the Black experience.”

The company is, of course, like the Festival, named after Robeson, that multi-talented Renaissance Man who epitomized the actor/activist but was perhaps best known for his deep baritone and signature number, “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 Broadway musical “Showboat.” (See a clip from the 1936 film version here.) Robeson was also extremely well known (including by J. Edgar Hoover and other G-Men) for his bold pro-Black, pro-communist, pro-Soviet, anti-fascist, anti-racist politics.

Paul Robeson Theatre Festival

Starletta DuPois (l.), Camille Wyatt, Lynne Conner, Dashira jordan

The Festival featured works that either specifically portrayed Robeson or were Black-themed in nature. On July 18 there was a staged reading of the new three act play, Paul Robeson in Berlin, written by Robert Coles and Bartley McSwine and directed by Robey’s artistic director Ben Guillory. The drama is based on Robeson’s (Stogie Amir Kenyatta, who also wrote and performs the one-man show The World is My Home -- The Life of Paul Robeson) late 1934 trip to meet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (who wanted to cast Robeson as Jean Jacques Dessalines in an epic about the Haitian Revolution) in Moscow, but because there was no direct train Paul and his fair-skinned wife Essie (Tiffany Coty) were forced to make a layover at Berlin. There, the Nazis harassed the Robesons, whom the guardians of Aryan racial purity mistakenly believed were an interracial couple. (This harrowing layover was in stark contrast to Robeson’s visit to the USSR, of which he declared: “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity.”)

On July 19 a grand total of 13 short plays were presented at LATC; all were either depictions of Robeson or Black-themed works. There were too many pieces to go into detail, but here are some highlights:

In The Agreement Robeson (Shon Fuller) takes an informal, private, man-to-man meeting with Pres. Harry Truman (a be-wigged Anthony Pellegrino) beneath the White House’s West Wing. I do not know if this tete-a-tete actually occurred or is imagined by playwright Kurt Maxey, but in any case this purported rendezvous supposedly took place shortly after a very public meeting between Robeson and other Civil Rights leaders with Truman at the Executive Mansion in 1946 to discuss proposed anti-lynching legislation. Robeson is portrayed as not backing down as he confronts the so-called leader of the free world (BTW, when did that election take place selecting the U.S. president for that position?) in this set piece well directed by Dylan Southard. The depiction of Robeson is in keeping with how Paul Robeson, Jr. described the public confrontation between his fiery father and the little man from Missouri:

Paul Robeson Theatre Festival

Jose Antonio (l.), John Cothran in "I Shot The Sheriff"

“…[H]e told President Truman that if there wasn't an anti-lynching bill, that African Americans in the South would avail themselves of their constitutional right to armed self-defense and compel military intervention by the federal government. That led to an immense clash, matter of fact, President Truman jumped up and shook his finger at dad and dad simply stood up calmly and waited for Truman to finish, but the Secret Service men on either side of him actually stepped forward and opened up their jackets, showing their 45s.” (For source see here)

It was this insubordinate attitude combined with leftist politics that landed Robeson before the House Un-American Activities. Robeson’s (Odell Ruffin) defiance is captured in playwright Alicia Tycer’s imaginative H.U.A.C., in a surreal, Brechtian piece creatively directed by Southard (whereas his above Truman-Robeson two-hander is more straightforward). Lisa Renée vamps it up as Paul’s defense attorney as he appears before the Congressional Committee in 1956, in a futile effort to, among other things, get his passport back. (Blacklisted from performing at home the Feds also denied Robeson the opportunity to avail himself of the many overseas offers he received to perform for audiences clamoring to hear his mellifluous voice, et al. As SNL’s Church lady used to say: “Isn’t that convenient!”)

Paul Robeson Theatre Festival

Kellie Dantzler (l.), Marla Gibbs

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Robeson’s barrister is astonished that he refuses to take a deal she has cut for him, and the principled activist likewise confounds the prosecutor (Ian Forester), who like the lawyer, is Caucasian. Unlike those who testified before H.U.A.C. on bended knee and sang like birdies, such as the despicable Elia Kazan, like Will Geer and Howard Da Silva, the recalcitrant Robeson treated the not-so-grand inquisitors with the contempt they so richly deserved. For the record, here’s some excerpts from the heroic Robeson’s actual testimony:

When H.U.A.C. asked: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Robeson courageously replied: “What do you mean by the Communist Party? As far as I know it is a legal party like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Do you mean a party… who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?” After one of the Torquemada turkeys persisted in asking Robeson if he belonged to the CPUSA Robeson spat back: “Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?”

Well, needless to say, Robeson may not have gotten his passport back after the hearing, but he acquitted himself well for history -- unlike so many others who sold their Hollywood brethren and others out to the blacklisters to save their own wretched necks.

A more personal side of Robeson is depicted in Nui Brown’s Eslanda Unplugged, wherein his wife, aka “Essie”, confronts her husband (here portrayed by Jah Shams) over his philandering and the overall state of their marriage. Elizabeth June does an excellent job as the wronged wife, confronting her man about his infidelities. She puts Paul more on the defensive than the House Un-American Activities did. The deft performances, adeptly directed by Robert Clements, depict a married couple who still love one another -- but for whom monogamy is complicated when so much temptation is at hand -- as they try to reach some sort of understanding that perpetuates not only their marriage, but the passion they once felt for each other.

Paul Robeson Theatre Festival

Aaron Jennings (l.), Frank Faucette in "Deep Rivers"

I have no quibble with Eslanda Unplugged from a dramatic POV, because it’s well-acted, directed, written and captivating to watch. However, its portrayal of the private lives of public people raises disturbing questions: Do we really have the right to know what goes on between a husband and a wife behind closed doors? Is it any of our business? Does it matter? Does it lessen their public personas, their brave stances on pressing matters of the day? For the record, Essie publicly supported Paul while he was being persecuted by H.U.A.C., et al, and good for her. That’s not to women should, like Tammy Wynette, sing “Stand By Your Man”, but is it appropriate for the playwright to be a voyeur sticking his/her nose into other people’s private lives -- even if they are famous? Do audiences have the right to be like peeping Toms? Whatever happened, in this day and age of TMZ and the NSA, to the old admonition against reading other people’s letters? Some may find Eslanda Unplugged to be a feminist statement; others will file it in the “TMI” category, revealing info that is really none of our damn business.

Levy Lee Simon (l.), Judith Bowman, Kellie Dantzler

Levy Lee Simon (l.), Judith Bowman, Kellie Dantzler

La’Chris Jordan’s Deep Rivers also takes us behind the scenes to a private meeting but, because like The Agreement it deals with the political (instead of the personal), it’s not in the same mode as Eslanda Unplugged. In thisrevelation of a private meeting during the 1960s between Robeson (Frank Faucette has a smoldering presence as the older but still defiant Paul) with a contemporary Civil Rights activist called James (Aaron Jennings), who inspired by CORE’s James Farmer. When the two met it was a bit like the day the planets collided: Farmer offers the pro-communist Robeson a way out of the wilderness by renouncing his radicalism, in order to become rehabilitated as part of the Civil Rights brethren. But for the lifelong social justice champion, this recantation seems like doing what Jackie Robinson had previously done to him, except that Robeson would be purging and betraying his own self. The aging giant reacts true to form and sticks to his guns. Good for him!

Some of the non-Robeson mini-plays were not explicitly political if Black-themed, and to this critic the most interesting was Greenwood 1964, wherein Harry Belafonte (who is played by the half hour or so drama’s writer/director Mohammed Ali Ojarigi) and Sidney Poitier (Montelle Harvey) hide out from the KKK, et al, in a Mississippi “safe house” during “Freedom Summer” in their efforts to support the Civil Rights movement. Belafonte was close to Robeson and to Poitier’s left, and the two stars clash as they debate the cause and its costs to celebrities. However, as Poitier, Harvey is almost always too overwrought, and every time he opened his mouth I expected him to burst out shouting: “THEY CALL ME MR. TIBBS!!!”

Overall, the 1st Annual Paul Robeson Theatre Festival presented a well rounded, worthy tribute in honor of its namesake -- the man known as “the tallest tree in the forest” -- and to the theatre company that produced it. Let’s hope this Robeson-palooza becomes an annual event and that Ol’ Man Robeson keeps rolling along. For as Robeson used to say: “The Artist Must Take Sides.”

Ed Rampell

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Ed Rampell