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Adelaide Fringe 2015

Call Mr. Robeson: A Life, With Songs

Joanne Hartstone in association with Tayo Aluko & Friends

Genre: Mainstream Theatre

Venue: La Boheme - 36 Grote Street, Adelaide


Low Down

The life of Paul Robeson was a tumultuous one, lurching from high-profile singer and movie star, to spokesperson for what would become the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, to political outcast, trapped, for all intents and purposes, under house arrest, his passport revoked due to his links with the Communist movement. This show will drag you through his life and loves, and you will feel it, boy will you feel it.


From the time he staggered toward the stage carrying his chair as if it weighed a ton, a metaphor for his suffering, the audience’s gaze was transfixed on Tayo Aluko. The harsh lighting made his chiselled looks appear weathered and beaten. And then he began to sing, and all other thoughts were forgotten. Deep, booming, and full of experiences the likes of which we’ll never comprehend – we were look and listening to Paul Robeson,albeit without the American accent (which the audience seemed to ignore almost immediately).

We discovered he was offered he was offered $40,000 — in 1935! — for a movie role. Only problem with this situation was the role he was to play was a demeaning stereotype. All too common, even in contemporary film. We heard about first loves, his college football career at Columbia, where he was the only African-American on the team—you can imagine that experience was not free of its challenges, but being Paul Robeson, he was equal to it. We also get a glimpse of his life-long love and friend Eslanda, with whom he shared a complicated relationship.

Ayuko’s delivery was often understated to match the more sombre moments in the narrative, but when there was call for powerful delivery, his voice boomed and his face contorted in a way that commanded attention. Robeson’s mother died when he was six-years-old; this seemed to be the moment when he realised he was not a quitter, that he would go on to represent toughness and resilience.

He suffered loss after loss (this is not a happy tale, by the way, though it is an inspiring one), but he just kept holding onto his beliefs and fighting hard for them. We hear of his time in Russia, where, for the first time, he was treated like a first-class citizen, without any prejudice. This led him back to the narrative of racial segregation in the USA. Misquoted by the media (due to his connections with the Communist Party), he started to find himself disowned by both the white population and the African-American population—imagine how that felt after fighting so hard for equality? He was charged and had his passport revoked, trapping him in a country where he was derided from all sides—for nine years! Still he didn’t give up. He was Paul Robeson.

Once he was granted his passport, he took off and visited Russia again, and stayed away for a long while until he was compelled to return to help fight for the now burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. He endured the murder of some of the most influential humans in American history: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—yet he still kept working for equality.

I won’t mention the last act, which is the most affecting, suffice to say it’s a worthy end to the story of such an iconic and influential human—the great and brave Paul Robeson.