Tayo Aluko’s one-man play Call Mr Robeson is currently making a welcome return to South Wales. The production recalls the true story of one of the 20th Century’s most impressive but overlooked figures, the actor, singer and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson.
When over the years Robeson gets progressively too radical and outspoken for the establishment’s liking, he is branded a traitor to his country, harassed, and denied opportunities to perform or travel. Just as physical, emotional and mental stress threaten to push him over the fine line between genius and madness, he is summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to give the most difficult and important performance of his career.
This roller coaster journey through Robeson’s remarkable and eventful life highlights how his radical activism caused him to be disowned and disremembered, even by the leaders and descendants of the civil rights movement. It features much fiery oratory and some of his famous songs, including a dramatic rendition of Ol’ Man River.
Tayo Aluko’s compelling tour-de-force performance, was seen at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 2012, and in London’s West End in October 2013.
Andy Howells recently put questions to Tayo Aluko about the show.
You will be bringing Call Mr Robeson back to Newport Riverfront soon, what originally inspired you to put the show together?
A lady heard me sing, told me I reminded her of him, but I hadn’t heard of him. By chance, I stumbled on his biography two months later and discovered this amazing story which I felt strongly needed to be told.
How does one approach performing such an inspirational and talented individual as Paul Robeson?
Others may do it differently, but I did it by picking a few incidents and episodes of his life that I considered key, and those songs he sang and speeches he made that I considered most important, and constructing the narrative around those in a manner that flows well and allows us to hear his true story, from his own mouth. I was also interested in going into private, personal areas of his life, because that reminds us that he was a human being, with fears, weaknesses and doubts like the rest of us. He was just a lot braver, more remarkable and more accomplished than practically everybody else.
Living in the time he did, Paul Robeson faced hardship, prejudice and hurtful accusations from critics and senior governments. What do you think made him such a strong individual?
He often retold the story of wanting to quit playing American football at his otherwise all-white college because he had been attacked by the entire squad, to prevent him from joining the team. His father had persuaded him to persevere, because succeeding would mean opening doors for other Black boys, so he “had to be ready to take whatever was handed out.” I believe he carried that thought with him throughout his life, especially as he believed that he was called to show how the world could be a better place.
His relationship with South Wales goes back to the 1920s when he became aware of the hardships of the Welsh Miners while performing in ShowBoat in London’s West End. He ultimately joined the miners on their hunger marches in 1927 and 1928 and established a relationship with Wales that would last many decades. Have you found that his legacy here in Wales is still strong?
One only needs to go to the Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl to see proudly displayed on their walls, images of the occasion when Paul sang down a telephone line from New York to the Eisteddfod there in 1957, or to Big Pit in Blaenavon to see images of him there too. More so, I believe his recordings are routinely played on Welsh radio, and he is talked about generally, so yes, his legacy is still strong.
There are many powerful moments within the show, one I recall is when Robeson halts a performance when he realises his audience has been segregated and another is when he sings Ol’ Man River midst rioting and the whir of a low flying helicopter. Evidently these are very powerful moments how do research them?
The segregated audience was in Kansas City, and the riot in Peekskill, NY. These stories are in the excellent biography by Martin Duberman, though not necessarily with the detail that I give them in the play. For instance, the helicopter was mentioned in a radio interview I heard when Paul Jnr, his son, was asked what his favourite rendition of his father singing Ol’ Man River was, and he mentioned the Peekskill event, but specifically the police helicopter. I had my sound designer include a helicopter sound for that part of the play, and it really makes it very dramatic, especially with what I say in the monologue preceding the song.
Were there any moments or songs that have proven a challenge to recreate or perform?
First of all, Ol’ Man River itself is a huge challenge because it was written for a bass (and actually with Robeson in mind at the time), and I am “only a baritone”. Although I sing it in a much higher key than he did, the range is so wide that the bottom note was always difficult to place if I wasn’t going to strain on the top note. I am however growing into the song, so to speak.
Another challenging part was re-enacting a scene where he has a mental breakdown and attempts suicide. Both the writing and the performing of that (from a point of no personal experience, thankfully) required quite a lot of imagination.
As you have taken the show around the world, have you uncovered any new or inspirational stories about Paul Robeson?
Here I am responding to these questions from Adelaide, Australia.
After last night’s performance, an audience member recalled his father saying how he interviewed Robeson one-on-one in his hotel in Adelaide in 1960. He had been granted ten minutes by Robeson’s publicist, it stretched to forty, and he left (after talking about everything from politics to music to Aussie rules football) thinking that Robeson remained the most impressive of all the people he had met in his long life . That’s the kind of thing we have heard said most recently about Nelson Mandela, so it is good to know that these feelings, these memories of Robeson remain in all corners of the world, being passed on from generation to generation.
Clearly the show has proved very popular, have you any further plans as to how it will develop in the future?
It has now been published, so I hope that other Black actor/singers will perform it around the world. In the meantime, I am enjoying travelling with it myself, and hope to do so for many more years to come.
How would you describe the show to anyone who still hasn’t seen it?
A one-man play about Paul Robeson, complete with his songs, his politics, his trials, tribulations and triumphs. A play that seeks to put him up there where he truly belongs – with the very best of humanity.
Tayo Aluko presented his one-man performance of Call Mr Robeson at The Riverfront Theatre, Newport on April 25, 2015.
This interview was archived on September 14, 2019