Edinburgh Fringe 2022
A musical narration of the life, the music, and the political protests of renowned African-American singer Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson was a force to be reckoned with. He was a very famous actor/singer who thrilled audiences worldwide with his deep baritone and moving portrayal of characters. But for him, the most important life’s work was standing on his principals. Tayo Aluko is a Nigerian-born actor, singer and playwright, based in Liverpool. He has channeled Robeson brilliantly not only in the dramatic telling of his story but also in the true delivery of his singing style.
Robeson was highly accomplished. He was born in 1898 in New Jersey to a father had escaped slavery and became a church minister. He lost his mother quite young in a house fire. In high school he sang in shows but also excelled in sports. He earned a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was only African-American on the football team. He studied law at Columbia University, becoming a Phi Beta Kappa scholar. He was whip-smart, able to converse in 25 languages. Throughout his studies he continued to sing in groups and perform in plays. After graduation he worked briefly as a lawyer but left the field because of racism.
Robeson became a hugely popular entertainer, in first place on radio in Britain and a film star. But he always battled racism. He used his platform in 1937 to speak out against injustice during his concert at the Royal Albert Hall. “An artist must take sides and fight for freedom.” In 1942 he stepped on stage and saw a segregated audience, which was against the terms of his contract. He initially refused to perform, but decided to go forward to make sure that those people of colour who had been put in the upper balconies still received a great show. He was standing up for his principles. “The persecution of the Negro is the beginning of the end.”
In 1949 Robeson started speaking out about aggression in Europe. He was accused of being a Communist, and he did agree with the principles of communism. At that time in America there was a Congressional investigation into communism and many left-leaning artists were hauled before Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Committee and identified as disloyal to the U.S. He defiantly testified to that committee. He promoted piece and friendship among nations, including Russia, for which he was blacklisted by the press. Robeson lost his lucrative concert contracts, the government cancelled his passport, and his income was slashed. He retaliated by holding a concert under the Peace Arch at the U.S./Canada border for 30,000 people. Robeson spent nine years under house arrest and was followed by the FBI. Later in life he had a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, but recovered to continue touring internationally as well as become involved with the civil rights movement in the U.S.
The story is an important piece of U.S. and music history. Accompanied by pianist Josh Wood, Aluko effectively brings Robeson to life in the play. The simple stage set compliments the story line well. Aluko sings some of the many songs that made Robeson a household name including “Steal Away Home”, “Joe Hill”, and the signature tune, “Old Man River”. Aluko shows the full range of emotions experienced by Robeson, from fiery oratory to depths of despair. Aluko grabs at our heartstrings as takes us on a journey of challenge, determination, and resilience. He captures the angst experienced by Robeson as a person of colour, yet shows the hope that fueled this powerful man. Music is a universal language, and Aluko speaks it beautifully. Through Aluko we come to understand how one person, a single voice, can effect change. We leave the theatre changed, eyes opened to previous injustices and hearts ready to fight for the rights of all people.