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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
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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