How apt that literally only miles away from where Paul Robeson filmed The Proud Valley in 1940, a musical dramatisation of the man's life and career should play at Newport Riverfront’ on September 22 2011.
Call Mr. Robeson was presented in the intimate setting of The Riverfront’s Studio venue and played to a packed audience of fans who obviously still held the memory of Paul Robeson and his Welsh connections in high regard.
Nigerian Baritone Tayo Aluko writes, produces and stars in Call Mr. Robeson, which is presented as an informal monologue with piano accompaniment provided by Michael Conliffe.
The play begins with the powerful image of Robeson stepping onto the stage from the shadows carrying a chair on his back singing Nobody Knows The Trouble Ah’ Seen accompanied by a piano and the sound effect of a needle scratching on vinyl. Within seconds Aluko has brought the spirit of Robeson back to Wales!
Recounting his life and career from the early 1900’s as an athlete, singer, actor and a civil rights campaigner, Robeson informally discusses his life with the audience. This discussion recalling his parents, wife, son and lovers is aided with strategically placed fragments of memorabilia and books scattered into sections representing his periods residing in America, Russia, England and Wales. The remnants of a giant 78rpm record flank the props which itself has been fragmented across the stage, defining Robeson’s worldwide appeal.
From the outset it becomes clear Robeson’s struggle against the prejudices he faced as a concert performer in America were something that ultimately inspired him to campaign for equal rights by facing racism and challenging oppression.
It seems almost unimaginable that audiences for his concerts would be segregated in one venue prompting him to walk off stage, but this scenario beautifully played out by Aluko is only one of the play's most defining moments.
Despite the prejudices Robeson faced in his homeland, he was welcomed with love and affection in Russia (where he was treated like a real human being for the first time in his life) and welcomed warmly by fans when he comes to live in England during the 1930s.
His special relationship with Wales and his generosity to several unemployed miners who had completed a hunger march from South Wales to London is also recalled. Having completed a performance of the musical Show boat in Drury Lane, he was greeted by the miners at the end of the road. Immediately identifying with their plight, he bought them their first meal in days.
Forming a special bond with Wales, he would later tour there and ultimately make the film The Proud Valley on location in The Rhondda and Port Talbot during 1940. It is also evident that that bond is still remembered by Welsh residents, as many members of the audience recalled those connections with affection after the play ended.
A wealth of Paul Robeson music is also featured in Call Mr. Robeson. Mesmerising interpretations of Steal Away, Just a Wearin’ for You, Going Home and Joshua Fit de Battle Ob Jericho were delivered by Aluko. On completion of Jericho the audience were so awestruck the performer was greeted with silence. "If anyone feels like applauding I will not be put off", he jokingly stated to which he received a rapturous applause.
There were more serious moments to come however, the decline of Robeson’s career coinciding with a riotous concert in Kansas City. As the noise of rebellion is flanked with the sound of a low flying helicopter, Robeson sings Ol’ Man River defiantly into the face of opposition creating a momentous and powerful moment.
Robeson by now has become too radical and outspoken for the U.S. governments liking. Branded a traitor because of his civil rights work, his passport is extracted from him and he is banned from performing.
Caught up in the madness of his own personal struggles he nearly loses everything including his life and at the eleventh hour is called upon – "Call Mr. Robeson" - by the House Un-American Activities Committee to present his defense. What follows is a memorable comeback that displays Robeson as a brave individual who was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs.
A powerful presentation in words and music Call Mr. Robeson is not only a fine tribute to the memory of Paul Robeson but serves to educate the audience as well as entertain.
Call Mr. Robeson will continue to tour the UK into 2012 and special performances in New Hampshire, USA and Carnegie Hall, New York are also scheduled.