Last night Anna May Wong met Paul Robeson in Britain for the first time since the Thirties. Their stage personae, that is.
I first heard of Tayo Aluko's show, Call Mr Robeson, when I met him ten years ago at the Oval Theatre in London for a conference. Back then, it was still a dream of his to play his hero in a theatre piece he was writing. So it was immensely pleasurable to see, last night at the Rich Mix in Shoreditch, how that dream has turned out.
Blessed with the height and charisma to pull it off, not to mention an astonishing voice, British-Nigerian actor/writer/singer Tayo tells the story of the black hero to perfection. Excelling at whatever he touched, this son of a former slave went from sports luminary to law graduate before achieving recording success as a singer in the 1920s and graduating to major roles in movies including Show Boat, Sanders Of The River and Emperor Jones. I know from my own experience writing Anna May Wong Must Die! how difficult it is to cram a life's-worth of material into a mere 75 minutes, but Tayo and his dramaturgical posse (Director Olusolo Oyeleye) have selected exactly what's needed to keep their fascinating subject fascinating and the story moving along. There's not one ounce of fat in this well-paced tale of the first black American singing superstar, scholar, socialist and internationalist.
Against the simplest of stage sets (Phil Newman) — a broken record strewn with mementos of Robeson's eventful life — Tayo weaves in several threads. I particularly liked the way the story of Robeson's understanding wife, Essie, and his many love affairs is told as an affectionate running joke with a very light touch that is never prurient and never loses sympathy. This is a giant of a human being, but a flawed one.
In an age where black men are largely presented as being all about bling, rapacious consumption or barbarism, it's vital to show the intellectual who could speak over 20 languages including French, Mandarin, Russian and Swahili; who read voraciously, and was deeply immersed in the politics not only of the black people at home and in colonialised Africa, but of the working classes of the world. He made friends with Welsh miners and spoke up for the Republican cause against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. His ideal society was the Soviet Union where he performed and sent his son to study. You can see why McCarthy and the tiny minds of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) dragged Robeson in to testify. Yet he never ratted on his friends or denied his beliefs, instead using the platform to make a stand.
He paid the price of defiance by being literally blacklisted by film studios and record companies in the US. He was also denied use of his passport from 1950 to 1958, making it impossible for him to travel to Europe where he was still hugely popular. At home, persecution by white-supremacist thugs closed down the theatre circuit for him and threatened his livelihood. His income plummeted from $100,000 a year to $6,000 — a further assault on his mental health — and he but narrowly survived a suicide attempt.
Not that he could depend on the solidarity of his fellow African-Americans. Despite his vociferous support for the rights of blacks and the fledgling Civil Rights movement, various organisations — including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who collaborated with Hoover's FBI in the media distortion of his socialist politics — condemned him for being un-American. In a vivid image early in the show, he describes how, as his college's first black football star, he was injured when, in the first scrimmage of the game, he was pounded by BOTH sides. And that was the central metaphor of his life. As they say, your opponents are in front of you but your enemies are behind you.
He did encourage the new guys, though. A planned meeting with Malcolm X was prevented only by Malcolm's assassination by black gunmen whom Robeson suspected were backed by the FBI. And he admired Martin Luther King, saddened that he had been murdered when only 39. Robeson would reach 79.
A panoramic musical backdrop was provided by pianist Michael Conliffe with sensitivity and a sense of dynamics. Being a baritone rather than a full bass-baritone like Robeson means Tayo has to rise a little up the scale to reach full throttle, but when his voice climbs out of his boots it is the most wonderful sound, spookily close to the real thing. As someone brought up by communists I grew up with his records and I had to stop myself joining in Ol' Man River (complete with lyrics changed by Robeson), the swinging Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, and Swanee River.
Call Mr Robeson has already found an audience in America. Tonight is the last night of this short run at the Rich Mix, 37-45 Bethnal Green Road (tube: Shoreditch High Street). But Tayo will be rocking the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Zoo Southside which I expect to see him take by storm next month (6-26 August). Go see!