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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 15, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Robeson’ at Passage

The extraordinary and often beleaguered American Paul

Robeson cast a long shadow in his lifetime. Yet, for his historic

contributions to the arts and the fight for human rights, it can never

be long enough. This is what is so energizing about Chuck Cooper’s

exuberant portrayal of Robeson, the man, in Phillip Hayes Dean’s


Robeson," playing at Passage Theater. You come away feeling as

if you’ve spent the evening as the great man’s sole guest.

Originally produced in 1978, two years after Robeson’s death, Dean’s

play tries to give us a sense of what it was like to inhabit Robeson’s

world. Directed here by Jeffrey V. Thompson, with Cary Gant as


long-time accompanist Lawrence Brown, the production provides big-time

entertainment on Mill Hill Playhouse’s small stage. The show, which

opened Saturday, May 4, runs through Sunday, May 26.

Cooper, who won a 1996 Tony for best featured actor in a musical for

his performance in "The Life," is every inch a star. Dressed

in black tie, as if for a concert recital (as is Gant at the piano),

Cooper’s confidence and ambition fills the playhouse to the rafters.

The play is full of storytelling, anecdote, and details of an active,

striving life. And even though we know Cooper can’t possibly replicate

Robeson’s commanding bass voice, he almost persuades us otherwise

by using his own strong baritone.

As comfortable with Cooper as hand in glove, is the actor, singer,

and pianist Cary Gant. He supplies the play’s musical through-line.

As accompanist and sometime confidant, Gant keeps the piano keys


and keeps us thinking musically. He also steps up with occasional

dialogue, and some welcome harmonizing.

The diminutive but nevertheless impressive stage set by Roman


is designed to resemble an empty recital hall. Dominated by a baby

grand piano, a crystal chandelier hangs above, and gilt chairs are

stacked here and there. Tall hanging scrim panels appear, at times,

like handsome oak paneling, and yet also become transparent for


effect — as when Antonio Salemme’s bronze portrait head of Robeson

smiles down on the actor. The chairs become all-purpose props, which

Cooper seizes to stand in for a trolley, a school desk, or a living

room in Germany.

There is a lot of history compressed into the play. It runs more than

two hours and takes the audience on a remarkable journey from


childhood in Princeton, across continents and cultures, in and out

of seats of power, to his final years, which he spent living quietly

with his sister in Philadelphia.

Family connections are an important element of the


Robeson’s father, William Drew Robeson, once pastor of Princeton’s

Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, was a runaway slave with tremendous

ambition for his children. We’re told here that he taught his son

Latin and Greek. Robeson’s mother Maria died in a kitchen fire at

home when the boy was only six years old, a loss that seems to have

heightened the father-son bond. Real families, of course, are not

without complications. An elucidating vignette shows us Robeson as

a young man teaming up with his brother Ben to persuade his angry

father to settle his differences with their rebellious brother Reeve.

Apparently, in 1916, Robeson was ready for Rutgers College before

Rutgers was ready for him. Integration in housing, eating facilities,

and even the glee club was then a distant dream. In a vivid vignette,

we hear the college cafeteria fall silent when the black freshman

enters. "We don’t serve colored food," Robeson is told by

the staff. "That’s O.K., I’ll take the white," he replies.

Nothing much had improved four years later when Robeson found himself

heckled by fellow students at Columbia Law School.

Music is a welcome addition to the Robeson. Dean has chosen the labor

movement ballad "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill" as its leitmotif,

perhaps for its persuasive imagery of the social activist who appears

in a dream to tell the dreamer "I never died." Also prominent

is the lovely "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder," a fitting

refrain for what sometimes seems like a never-ending struggle. We

also hear snatches of song that became the NAACP anthem, "This

Little Light of Mine," and Cooper’s rendition of "Old Man

River" from "Showboat". Robeson had adapted those lyrics

to remove a familiar and unwelcome epithet.

Robeson used to say that his native land’s tragic flaw was racism,

and the play includes his exultant report of his experience in Soviet

Russia where he felt the weight of racism lifted. "For the first

time in my life I felt I could lay down that sword and that


Tragically, the actor Cooper repeated Robeson’s words in the same

week that our newspapers were reporting an escalation of racist


in present-day Russia.

On the ever-evolving landscape of 20th-century history, Robeson is

credited today with working through a series of ideological solutions

to the question of race in America and to advance a solution that

was consistently antiracist, antiseparatist, and anticolonialist in

its orientation. In 1998 Robeson’s alma mater Rutgers launched the

traveling exhibition and catalog titled "Paul Robeson: Artist

and Citizen." Together with his son Paul Robeson Jr.’s recently

published biography, there is ample source material for all who want

to know more and contribute to the quest for equality.

— Nicole Plett

Robeson, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front

and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. $15 & $20. Performances

continue to Sunday, May 26.

Note: Passage Theater scheduled its production of


before Cooper won a role in the forthcoming Off-Broadway production

of "Thunder Knocking at the Door," at the Union Square


To accommodate potential conflicts, Broadway veteran James Stovall

has been hired as an alternate for Cooper and may fill the role


the end of the run, which is May 26.

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