Paul Robeson--American | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Paul Robeson--American




ETA Creative Arts Foundation

There's no reason to make any bones about it: Paul Robeson--American is disastrously inept theater and a desecration of the memory of the man it purports to honor. Created by stage and screen actor William Marshall as a vehicle for himself, the play is being given a "world premiere" at the south side's ETA Creative Arts Foundation. One suspects that this is still a work in progress, but even a work in progress should be more ready for audiences than this embarrassingly half-baked effort.

Unprofessional theater is an offense in any case; but when the subject is someone like Robeson, the offense is particularly intolerable. A performing artist of international stature, an accomplished intellectual and superstar athlete, Paul Robeson embodied a rare combination of passion and principle. The son of a slave minister, he promoted the unique values of African American heritage while also advocating a pan-cultural humanist sensibility; his concerts (at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere), for instance, drew their repertoire from African, Jewish, Celtic, black American, and Slavic folk and religious music at a time when such broad-mindedness would have been suspect in a white performer, let alone a black one. And at the peak of his success, Robeson risked his reputation to speak out forcefully for black American liberation and for the worthiness, as he saw it, of socialism. When in 1956 an interrogator from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee asked Robeson why he didn't move to Russia if he thought so much of it, Robeson defiantly shot back: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?"

For his troubles, Robeson was systematically persecuted: he was blacklisted by the entertainment industry; his passport was revoked--and even his right to travel to countries like Mexico and Canada removed--so that his career abroad was effectively curtailed; when he published his autobiography-cum-manifesto Here I Stand in 1958, it was received positively by the overseas press and the black American media but completely ignored by the mainstream American literary press, including the New York Times. But Robeson remained unbowed, confident that the passage of time would vindicate him.

William Marshall (who looks very little like Robeson, though he possesses a similarly deep and sonorous voice) plays Robeson at age 60, on the brink of a hoped-for comeback with the publication of Here I Stand and a series of concert appearances. The setting is a rehearsal for one of these concerts, at which Robeson and a choir are to perform Ballad for Americans, the 11-minute cantata for baritone and chorus by composer Earl Robinson and librettist John Latouche, which became Robeson's signature piece in 1940. In Ballad, the soloist (the personification of hard-won liberty) frequently sings, "And you know who I am"; the chorus invariably responds, "No, who are you?"--leading up to the soloist's final triumphant answer, "America!" Here, though, every time the "Who are you?" cue pops up, Marshall/Robeson interrupts the Ballad rehearsal for a rambling reminiscence about his life.

The idea of paralleling Robeson with the America figure in Ballad might seem clever, but the effect is quite the opposite. First, it makes Robeson out to be an unprofessional artist, cutting into his and his fellow singers' valuable rehearsal time to spout off another story. (Delano O'Banion, who plays the choral conductor, is forced to keep calling Robeson back to the task at hand--my heart went out to him.) Even worse, because Marshall hardly knows his script--most of it paraphrased from Here I Stand, it seems--he makes Robeson out to be a garrulous, befuddled old fool, fluffing his words and floundering for help from the others onstage (the John Work Chorale, who sing quite nicely and deliver their few lines with a focus and spontaneity entirely missing from Marshall's performance).

Perhaps worst of all--considering Robeson's strong belief in the rights of the worker and the integrity of the artist--is that though Ballad for Americans makes up about a third of Paul Robeson--American, Marshall (who is credited as having "conceived" the show) gives no program credit to the cantata's authors, Robinson and Latouche. Never mind the question of royalties; and never mind the weak and halting performance this wonderful, neglected music receives at the start of the second act, when the setting shifts from rehearsal to Robeson's concert performance. There, Marshall meanders (in a painfully flat basso) through Ballad and a collection of other Robeson-identified material, including a not-bad reading of "Joe Hill," one of the brief bright spots in this tediously long show. At another point, Marshall sings the spiritual "Scandalize My Name"; it provides an all-too-fitting comment on the treatment Paul Robeson receives at William Marshall's hands in this not-ready-for-any-time production.

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