He’s Reacquainting the World With the Paul Robeson Story
Paul who ?
It’s not uncommon to find people who’ve never heard of actor-singer Paul Robeson. From a theatrical, historical and social perspective, actor Bennet Guillory is only too happy to fill in the informational gap. Beginning Friday at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, he reprises his performance in Phillip Hayes Dean’s “Paul Robeson,” a one-character play with music.
The piece, which Guillory (“The Color Purple,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) has been performing off and on for the past eight years, takes the form of an evening with Robeson (1898-1976), as the controversial performer-athlete-scholar ruminates about his life from age 16 to a tribute for him at Carnegie Hall in 1975.
“It opens with the celebration being planned,” said Guillory. “From that moment, he thinks back, and we go back in time. He talks about the major influences on his life--his father and brother, his experiences in school with racism. At Rutgers (where Robeson played football and was class valedictorian), he was the nation’s first black All-American in football (1917-18) and lettered in track, baseball and basketball. Then there was Columbia Law School and a short-lived law practice on Wall Street.”
At the same time he was pursuing law, Robeson had begun to perform. He hooked up with Eugene O’Neill (“The Emperor Jones”) and Jerome Kern, whose “Show Boat” took him to England. Seven years later, he returned to America, starring in “Othello” on Broadway. In 1946, Robeson’s activist affiliations landed him before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His refusal to testify branded Robeson a Communist--a label he never acknowledged. (Guillory earlier essayed this stage of Robeson’s life in Eric Bentley’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” at the Illustrated Stage.)
“Through all of this, his social consciousness was changing, growing,” the actor noted. “He took a stand at the HUAC when he could have kept his mouth shut, lived a very fat, though uncomfortable, life. And he walked into (the fray) with his eyes wide open. He chose to speak out against oppression and racism--not only in America, but everywhere he saw it. In England, he spoke about the colonization of Africa and caught hell for it.”
As Robeson’s activism became more and more vocal, his career took a steep decline. In 1949, an anti-Communist riot broke out at one of his concerts in New York, and in 1950 the State Department revoked his passport. In 1952, the Soviet Union awarded him its Stalin Peace prize; in 1958, he left the United States and lived in Moscow, Eastern Europe and London for the next five years.
“Paul Robeson was about passion,” Guillory said. “He was provocative. He put his career on the line by talking. Just like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; they talked. I don’t think he decided, ‘OK, after I sing “No More Auction Block for Me,” I’ll talk about slavery, see if I can get a rise out of the audience.’ I think he probably said, ‘I’m going to talk about this now because I feel the need to--and if it rocks the boat, so be it.’ ”
It’s a sentiment the Louisiana-born Guillory clearly shares: “It’s always important to shake things up. You throw the dice, let the chips fall where they may. I think that’s in Paul Robeson’s spirit.”
Also perhaps in his spirit was the controversy that greeted the 1978 New York premiere of “Paul Robeson,” starring James Earl Jones. A protest was led by Paul Robeson Jr., who had collected 56 signatures (from such notables as Coretta Scott King, James Baldwin and Andrew Young, none of whom had seen the play), and ran a two-page ad in Variety, decrying Dean’s work as “a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson.”
This past summer, when a revival of the play opened on Broadway starring Avery Brooks, Robeson Jr.'s objections had been muted somewhat. In an interview in the New York Times six weeks ago, Robeson Jr. declared, “I still think that in its lines the play was about someone else, not my father. It bases its appeal on the popular culture, on show business, and leaves out much that was not just important but was essential.”
Guillory dismisses author Dean’s picking-and-choosing as unavoidable. “There were so many things that happened to Robeson, a couple of lifetime’s worth of experiences,” he shrugged. “We try to cover all of it in two hours. Of course there’s stuff left out.” And a few creative additions.
“Certainly there are some things that are not on the button,” Guillory allowed. “Whether Phillip Hayes Dean has Robeson being discovered by O’Neill (or by O’Neill’s associates, as facts dictate) is not the point. What he’s doing is setting up their relationship; he’s taking artistic license. Whether or not it’s inaccurate or imaginary is not as important as the (overall) portrait that’s painted.”
It’s a portrait, Guillory emphasizes, that deserves homage.
“That why I do this kind of play. Because it does make a difference to those who see it--and not just for an evening. Paul Robeson talks about making choices, taking stands, what one should be thinking about, addressing. That all sounds highfalutin, but it’s true. He’s someone who made a difference. And at the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back, I like to think that doing this play means I’ve made a difference too.”