Brighton Fringe 2016
The stage at The Marlborough is entirely black, and all we could hear was the scratchy sound of an old bakelite 78 record, with a ticking noise about every second as it tracked along its inner groove at the end of a play. Then the lights came up, and in the back corner a slim young woman, dark haired and elegantly clothed in a black dress and fine check jacket, commenced playing piano. A short medley – I could pick out the unmistakable notes of ‘Old Man River’ before it segued into something else – which tapered off as we heard singing starting from outside the auditorium door.
“Tote that barge / lift that bale / You get a little drunk / and you land in jail”. As he came through the door, it was Paul Robeson, bent under the burden of a chair over his shoulder – as though it was a heavy bale of cotton. Robeson went up onto the stage, put down the chair and sat on it, and the show began.
Tayo Aluko is a tall black man in his fifties with a rich bass voice. He was wearing a beautiful grey double-breasted suit. Good shirt, cufflinks, and a classy grey tie. Hair cut really short, almost to stubble; he bore a striking resemblance to the Paul Robeson we see in photographs from the nineteen fifties and sixties. Whether he was singing in concert, speechmaking at civil rights rallies, or appearing in front of Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist Senate hearings, Robeson was always elegantly dressed, always charismatic.
Aluko grew up Liverpool – he moved there from his native Nigeria as a small child – but he put on a convincing American accent for this show. He put on the mantle of Robeson’s magnetic personality too. Sometimes Aluko moved downstage to make a point with expansive hand gestures and loads of eye contact with the Marlborough audience – at other moments he stood on a couple of small boxes, as though at a podium, and spread his arms wide to address thousands of listeners in some stadium.
I knew a little about Paul Robeson – that’s why I wanted to see this show, to learn more about his life. And what a life! I had no idea just how varied and rich it had been. Robeson’s father was born a slave, but escaped, then graduated through university to become a church Minister, while his mother came from a Quaker family who worked for the abolition of slavery. Paul obviously inherited their intelligence and determination, and he himself went to Rutgers University to study law.
Robeson turned out to be a star athlete as well as a scholar, but he had to overcome racial aggression from fellow students to become a member of the university football team. He also started to sing, initially to help his student finances. After graduation he worked for a while as a lawyer, but then turned to acting and singing professionally – he starred in the 1927 London production of ‘Show Boat’, which featured the song ‘Old Man River’.
Robeson obviously knew all about racial prejudice, but as Aluko told it, it was the lyrics from the show’s song ‘Old Man River’ that opened Robeson’s eyes to black people’s predicament. “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / niggers all work, while the white boys play / Gettin’ no rest from the dawn till the sunset / getting’ no rest till the Judgement Day”. Robeson hated that, and later changed the words to ‘Coloured people work on the Mississippi’ whenever he sang it, insisting that the ‘N’ word recalled the worst excesses of slavery. But of course, even though slavery was over, race hatred and segregation were still endemic in American society in the nineteen thirties.
Paul Robeson came to realise that the inequality suffered by black people in America was shared by working people the world over. He’d met Welsh miners while he was in Britain in the twenties, and as a famous celebrity he became an outspoken activist for socialism. He was appalled by the rise of Fascism – at a rally during the Spanish Civil War he made a speech that was reported around the world – “The artist must fight for freedom, or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative”.
Robeson worked tirelessly for the Civil Rights movement, and spoke out against the colour bar at his concerts – “I have insisted I will not sing to segregated audiences”. Tayo Aluko made those words ring out, and reminded us that negro spiritual songs are about hardship as well as about faith. When he sang ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’ and ‘Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?’ the singer took us right back to the plantation slavery of the Old South. Many white people hated him for this, of course, and there were often threats of violence. At a concert at Peekskill in New York State, there was rioting, and the event had to be protected by a force of trade unionists – “Black, White and Latino”.
Aluko’s powerful voice boomed those words from the Marlborough stage. The actor gave us a fine sense of the passion of Robeson’s political beliefs, but he also produced a vivid portrait of a man who seems to have had no self-doubt at all! Star athlete, lawyer, successful singer, civil rights activist, socialist figurehead – was there nothing this man couldn’t do? He’d studied at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and spoke more than a score of languages. He was friends with Nehru and Einstein, had a long-standing marriage and a son, yet still found the time (and energy!) to engage in a long series of hotel-room trysts with women he described as ‘good friends’ …
Paul Robeson saw himself as a citizen of the World. The stage had boxes and stands draped with a number of flags – British, American, Welsh, and the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. Aluko made use of these as visual aids as he recounted Robeson’s internationalism. During the Cold War the singer spent a number of years living in Russia – he loved the fact that the Soviet system didn’t discriminate against black people. “It is unthinkable that American negroes would go to war on behalf of a people who have oppressed us for generations, against a country which, in one generation, has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind”.
All this activity meant that in 1956 he was called to testify to HUAC – Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. They asked why the singer was a supporter of Russia; and, sneeringly, why the singer hadn’t stayed there, if he liked it so much. Aluko gave us Robeson’s powerful replies. “Because in Russia I felt like a full human being for the first time in my life. No colour prejudice like in Mississippi” … “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country – and I’m going to stay here, and have a part of it, just like you”.
Tayo Aluko is touring this show, using a local pianist to accompany his songs at each venue. We were lucky enough to have Ana Sofia Ferreira, Portuguese-born but living in Brighton. Her southern European background complemented Robeson’s internationalism, and her spirited playing was a fine match for the actor’s powerful bass singing.
At the end Robeson was old, and becoming tired and frail. The actor had gradually made his movements slower and more painfully tentative, wincing slightly as he sat or stood up. He finished with a haunting rendition of ‘I’m going Home’, then picked up the chair and shuffled off out of the auditorium. To return moments later to thunderous applause.
A wonderfully uplifting and inspiring performance. I saw ‘Call Mr Robeson’ just a month before a Referendum will decide if Britain is to become insular and xenophobic, fearing foreigners and in thrall to bankers and big business. Paul Robeson and Tayo Aluko showed that there is another possibility – a different vision of how we can be.