Review: In ‘Paul Robeson,’ an inspiring life falters in the telling

Even the sparest account of the life of Paul Robeson, the lawyer, actor, singer and civil rights activist who died in 1976, has a mythic power: He accomplished more, against greater odds, than seems quite humanly possible.

Phillip Hayes Dean’s one-man play “Paul Robeson” (1977), in a revival directed by the playwright at Ebony Repertory Theatre, derives real momentum from this astonishing biography -- then fritters it away.

The immensely likable Keith David plays Robeson, alone and reminiscing late in life on a stage, designed by Edward E. Haynes Jr., where a few chairs serve as scenery and props alike.

Accompanied by pianist Byron J. Smith, who occasionally steps into the action, David gamely undertakes the daunting task of sustaining a 2 1/2-hour dramatic monologue punctuated by songs. He flags toward the end, but not before charming the audience with the humanizing wit of his delivery, as well as his voice, which approaches the resonance of Robeson’s own.

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His story begins with Robeson’s arrival at Rutgers University in 1915, as one of its first black students. Confronted by overt racism at every turn, he employs a combination of cheerful defiance, sly humor and unflagging courage to graduate as an All-American football star and his class valedictorian. He earns a law degree at Columbia, flirts with acting and quickly achieves international stardom.

Dean’s script makes no effort to explain how Robeson developed his capacity to overcome injustice, leaving us to surmise that he was simply born, like any mythological figure, with superhuman intelligence, charm, talent and grit. The one-man-show format, which neatly excises Robeson from his context, reinforces this impression. Other people exist only as empty spaces that David intermittently addresses, between his monologues, in lively if implausible one-sided conversations.

This device works best in short doses, as in Robeson’s courtship of his wife-to-be, Essie: His peevish refusals to get married culminate humorously in a walk down the aisle.

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In the second act, though, the plot thickens, departing (as life inevitably will) from the pleasing mythic structure of the early years. Dean attempts to cover too many years and events, and Robeson’s many conversations with unseen interlocutors falter under the weight of exposition. Increasingly, David seems rattled by the obligation to deliver forced, implausible lines in a conversational tone.

The least effective scene is an unnecessarily thorough reenactment of Robeson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, with Smith asking the questions from the piano bench. The slack direction and unfocused storytelling render a potentially dynamic sequence tedious, bombastic and repetitive. The reliance on history that charges “Paul Robeson” ultimately proves its undoing.

“Paul Robeson,” Ebony Repertory Theatre, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays. Through March 30 with added performances April 18-20. $30-$60. (323) 964-9766 or Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.