The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center is inaugurated auspiciously with Crossroad Theater Company’s intelligent, engrossing production of Phillip Hayes Dean’s biographical play, “Paul Robeson.”
Nathaniel Stampley embodies the eclectically talented Mr. Robeson with a supple ease that is at once cordially conversational and loaded with intensity and personal magnitude.
Stampley not only conveys Robeson’s individuality and greatness but effortlessly displays his exceptional abilities as an actor, singer, dancer, speaker, and champion of ideas and causes he deemed righteous and immediate.
With director Marshall Jones, III, Stampley endows Dean’s information-packed script with depth and the keen sense that Robeson made great strides towards weighty, often risky objectives during a life lived as America was on the cusp of critical recognition and change.
Theirs is a significant achievement. Dean is a fine writer who composed “Paul Robeson” at a time when biographies could be complete and could be a digest of key incidents in a subject’s life. The danger is such plays can unfold as a matter-of-fact self-congratulatory list of accomplishments and high points.
Jones and Stampley, abetted by some shrewd piano accompaniment by Nat Adderley, Jr., skirt that danger by always keeping Robeson direct and human. This Paul Robeson is a man who commands attention by the clarity and sincerity of what he presents. His manners are always impeccable, his outrages controlled, his observations apt, his logic explained, and his opinions, whether one agrees with all of them or not, legitimately based and imparted in a way that invites understanding and consideration.
Among Stampley’s remarkable feats is keeping “Paul Robeson” highly dramatic and constantly interesting while never seeming to emote, go overboard, or unduly emphasize any part of Robeson’s character or story.
Dignity is Stampley’s primary tool. He imbues Robeson with a gentleman’s graces, a refinement and articulate demeanor that is so polished, yet so natural, it disarms any adversary, making them seem small, bigoted, or crass by comparison.
As said earlier, Stampley’s Paul Robeson exudes magnitude. He is a perceptive man who knows how to burst through prejudice, is willing to challenge both popular thought and arrogant authority, and whose talent on many scores cannot be denied.
Stampley presents Robeson as admirable, a genuine human original, and the fitting subject for a play. His performance has no false notes and amiably fills more than two hours in a way that makes one forget time is passing.
Dean makes Paul Robeson a compelling subject. He shows Robeson to be a true pioneer, racking up a string of “firsts” for African-Americans just two generations past their time as slaves.
Freedom and equality are recurring themes in “Paul Robeson.” As a young man, Robeson overcomes objections and deftly counters all obstacles that would deny him the education he sought at Rutgers, prevent him from playing college football, or from speaking with authority in classes at Columbia Law.
As Robeson’s theatrical career evolves he asks to talk to established composers about lyrics he finds questionable and is willing to refuse to perform for an audience that has no African-Americans sitting in it. Time abroad teaches Robeson the difference in how minorities are treated in the United States versus their relative acceptance in Europe. As he makes discoveries, he does not hesitate to be outspoken in revealing them.
The wonderful part of Jones’ Crossroads production is all of this accrues to the growth of a man. If Stampley’s Paul Robeson advocates, it’s from his own experience and comes from a sophisticated assessment of a world that extends to several continents and includes overt and benign incidents of injustice, personal and political.
In lesser hands, some of what Robeson sees and endures might become sentimental or, worse, a plea for pity. It can make Robeson’s reaction seem like cant or propaganda. At Crossroads all is in perspective, seen from a sensitive, discerning man’s point of view and strengthened by a fearless responsibility to speak and act and call for change.
In addition, Jones’s “Paul Robeson” is entertaining at the most elemental levels.
Stampley is a marvelous singer with a flexible bass-baritone voice that can be sweet and pure one moment and pumping out secure bottom notes the next. This voice is smooth and handles the difficult without a bit of strain.
Much from Robeson’s famous repertoire is covered. Hymns and spirituals such as “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Were You There When They Crucified Our Lord?,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and the upbeat “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” are sung along with folk classics like “Joe Hill” and more popular tunes like “Ol’ Man River.”
Dean and Jones make it clear how Robeson brought about changes in Oscar Hammerstein II’s original lyrics. Jones also employs other modifications. A folk tune, “Old Black Joe,” used in “Paul Robeson” by Rutgers students to taunt Robeson, is changed to “Poor Old Joe” for this production.
Song isn’t the end of Stampley’s strengths. In scenes depicting the Harlem Renaissance, he lets go with a mean black bottom and sprightly cakewalk. In a ballroom scene, he does an elegant waltz.
Adderley does more than accompany. Crossroad’s “Paul Robeson” has non-stop musical commentaries, songs such as “We You There,” presaged in the background, as are other tunes that add texture to Jones’ production. As a lagniappe, Adderley begins the second act of “Paul Robeson” with a jazz solo.
Elizabeth C. Nelson’s set creates the tone of elegance Jones and Stampley accomplish so completely. Spare though it is, it represents times and places well. Ramaj Jamar’s costume shows how versatile formal wear can be. Timothy Cook and Joel Abbott contribute vitally with lighting and sound.
Paul Robeson, Crossroads Theater Company, Arthur Laurents Theater, New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, September 15. $25 to $55. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.