Playwright and director Phillip Hayes Dean’s one-man play “Paul Robeson” powerfully chronicles the life of a remarkably talented man who, against great odds, achieved huge accomplishments and international stardom. After graduating with a Columbia University law degree, Robeson realized racist prejudice would limit his ability to practice law. He became an actor and singer, and a dedicated civil rights activist, fighting racism wherever he encountered it.
Two-time Emmy Award winner Keith David stars dynamically as Robeson, on an almost bare stage enhanced by lighting effects by Dan Weingarten, that only contains several chairs as props and scenery, and a grand piano. David, while speaking or singing, moves around and repositions the chairs from side to side of the stage. Musical director Byron J. Smith, in the role of Lawrence Brown, Robeson’s regular pianist, accompanies him on piano for his occasional solos. Smith has worked with numerous artists, including Barbara Streisand and Wynton Marsalis.
The story begins with Robeson’s arrival in 1915 as one of Rutgers University’s first black students. Despite overt racism at every turn, he manages through defiance, humor, and undaunted courage to graduate as an all-American football star and become class valedictorian. He subsequently attends Columbia University where he meets and marries Essie, and with her encouragement turns to acting and singing that leads to his well-deserved international acclaim and fame. His travels around the world make him aware of the ubiquitous prevalence of racism and he uses his influence and stature to enlighten people by speaking out against injustice. Returning to the U.S. Robeson continues to fight against injustice and racism and is accused of being a Communist agitator. He is blacklisted and his passport is revoked, leading to an eight-year ordeal of condemnation before he could clear his name and have his passport reinstated.
Keith David, limping and still obviously suffering from an earlier knee injury that delayed the show’s initial opening date, carried on stoically to the end of a rather over-lengthy 2½ hour show, with only one fifteen-minute intermission. His singing, learned in his younger years in the church choir, charmed the audience and elicited thunderous applause with his rendition of “Old Man River,” that approached Robeson’s own resonance. Smith’s accompaniment of the evocative music from Robeson’s era provided relief from the tension built up from David’s otherwise continuous, albeit flawless, monologue.
In the second half of the show Robeson appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee, with Smith asking the questions from the piano bench. Although, for me, while this powerful re-enactment appeared to be over-long and unnecessarily thorough, it did not detract from my enjoyment and appreciation of the value of this worthwhile production. I found myself watching and listening, mindfully aware of the constant murmurs from the audience when identifying with Robeson’s suffering and misfortunes during one of the many difficult periods in African American history.
Creative Team for Paul Robeson:
Director: Phillip Hayes Dean, Production stage manager: David Blackwell, Scenic design: Edward E. Haynes, Jr., Lighting design: Dan Weingarten, Costume design: Wendell C. Carmichael, Sound design: Bob Blackburn, Choreography: Keith Young.
Pictured is Keith David (center) with Byron J. Smith (background) in PAUL ROBESON by Phillip Hayes Dean. Photos courtesy of Ebony Repertory Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Showing April 18-20 and 25-27.
Ebony Repertory Theater, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center,
4718 West Washington Blvd, Los Angeles. Phone: (323) 964 9766