Call Mr Robeson: A Life with Songs

Mar 06, 2015

Paul Robeson was an extraordinary singer, political activist and sometime actor on the US and world stage through the 1930s to ’60s. With an unforgettable booming baritone and a solid six-feet, four-inch frame on him, Robeson is a difficult man to reproduce on his stage. He was a huge international star

But the star of this show is undoubtedly the writer and performer, Nigerian-born Liverpudlian Tayo Aluko. The script he has produced is neat and clever, thoroughly engaging through the full 80 minutes. He is faultlessly accompanied by Adelaide pianist Thomas Saunders and the sound effects, props and lighting all work well.

Robeson recalls his early days as the only black student at Rutger College, New Jersey, particularly his debut on the football field where both teams went for him on his first touch of the ball. Aluko sprawls himself across the stage, mimicking the outcome.

He goes to Soviet Russia in 1949 and for the first time in his life feels like a “full human being”. Subsequent socialist leanings see Robeson become the target of attacks by government and newspapers in the US.

He becomes weary fighting battles, attempts suicide, lurks on the fringe of madness and then is called to his famous appearance before the House Committee for un-American activities: Call Mr Robeson, the sound comes over. Interrogative voices come at him from all sides of the stage and he must channel Mother Africa to rise to the occasion. Lighting and sound work together beautifully here as he responds to the committee.

Aluko sings evocatively on some of the songs heard in my own childhood: “Old Man River”, “Jericho”, “The Old Folks at Home” and the trade union classic “Joe Hill”, as well as the beautiful “Steal Away to Jesus” on the death of his preacher father. He possibly strains for the Robeson power in the lower registers, but who on earth wouldn’t.

Aluko’s script reminds us that Robeson’s struggle was not simply for civil rights for American coloured people, but for workers all over the world. One charming story recounts his encounter with a choir of starving Welsh miners, singing in the streets of London’s West End in protest over their treatment. He bought them the first hot meal they had had in a week.

This show is a timely reminder of the endless struggle of working people, particularly relevant in today’s Australia amid the resurgence of aggressive doctrinaire elitism. It has performed around the world and received a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. Little wonder.

To have both written and performed this show makes Tayo Aluko close to a genius. Remaining scheduled shows are virtually booked out but I hear there may be some additional performances coming. Act fast.

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Call Mr Robeson is playing at La Boheme, Grote Street, until March 15.

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