I Never Died, Says He: Tayo Aluko in “Call Mr. Robeson”

This blogpost is about a Performance by Tayo Aluko in Call Mr Robeson that I saw at UCLAN’s Media Innovation Centre on the 14th April 2016 (but this isn’t a review). More info of Aluko’s shows can be found here. GO SEE IT!

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Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Nobody Knows My Sorrow.

Most people know of Paul Robeson in passing. They know the actor, the singer – Paul Robeson the performer. But less is said of Paul Robeson the socialist and the activist. This is a huge part of the story of this most famous of American early-20th Century performers, and it is this element of Robeson’s story that has seen the legacy of this artist erased from our collective historical memory.

Tayo Aluko is working to correct this. From Carnegie Hall, to this little Conference room in Preston where I watched him perform, Aluko has taken his one-man show, Call Mr Robeson, across the world.

“Call Mr Robeson” – the announcement blares from the back of the room, as the voice of McCarthy’s cronies call us to attention in the courthouse pews. Mr Robeson stands in front of us, proud once more, to defend himself against the charges of communism and un-American activities.

We are with him, adopted Welsh miners, trade unionists, forerunners of civil rights, fans of his music – we witness this trial alongside him with a solidarity Robeson sorely lacked in his own life. For over an hour we watched Robeson take us through his life, in a scene that became his living room, decorated by portraits, trinkets, records, a flag of the International Brigade, the Stars and Stripes, and a Welsh flag reminding him of the Valleys where he felt most loved. We nod along as Robeson answers each silly charge with blissful defiance, because we now know where he had come from, and why he stood before us today in the courthouse.

 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, Alive as You and Me

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The Stage is (blurrily) set for “Call Mr Robeson.”

Aluko isn’t a diminutive man, but on this makeshift stage he grew into the mighty stature of Robeson, the son of a Minister born into (and escaped from) the chattels of slavery, the only black footballer at Rutgers, sacked on his first start by both sides, who stood up and carried on.

Robeson, the star of Show Boat, the Emperor Jones, Othello and Toussaint Louverture, fell afoul of those who saw him as coalescing with the enemy as well as those who wished to keep him down. Marcus Garvey saw him as little more than a minstrel, but Aluko crafts a different figure, too subversive in his patriotic turns and too captivating upon the stage to be regarded as anything less than a powerful exponent of black excellence.

Offside, stage right, stood the imagined presence of Eslanda Robeson (née Goode), Paul’s manager and wife. Essie had no lines in the one man show, but she stood over Paul at all times, initially supporting him financially, reminding him where he had come from, urging him to stay firm, challenging him to be more than just Paul Robeson, the performer. It was a tumultuous relationship, and Aluko refused to shy away from Paul’s frequent affairs and troubles within his marriage. Essie’s journey, although silent, was very much a part of the performance – the peaks and turmoils of this tale were, after all, felt and moulded by Essie as much as by Paul.

Robeson performed Ol’ Man River throughout his career – and he and Essie tinkered with the lyrics as they slowly divorced the song’s association from Show Boat and made it a Robeson standard. As Todd Decker has written, the lyrical alterations change the feel of the song from resignation to defiance, from a song of longing to a call to action.

“You get a little drunk and you land in Jail” becomes “You show a little grit and you land in jail,”

“I must keep on struggling until I’m dyin’” becomes “I must keep on fighting until I’m dyin’.”

 

Sing it Loud, Sing it Proud

Where did you hear of Paul Robeson? Was it in the booming rendition of Ol’ Man River? In echoes of his celebrated turn as Othello that shook through London theatrical circles? Unless you are of mining stock, you are less likely to be familiar with Robeson the socialist and tireless, unapologetic activist for global equality, and for dignity for black Americans. Aluko was asked, after the event, how he came to create Call Mr Robeson. He tells us that as a younger man he sung in front of a Merseyside audience in his powerful baritone, reminding one audience member of the star of Show Boat. The listener approached Aluko, asking him if Robeson had influenced him and if he sung any of his numbers. This, Aluko tells us, was the first he’d heard of the man. Later on, a book on the life of Paul Robeson found its way into Aluko’s hands at Liverpool Library, and that was that.

Myself, I knew of Robeson from a young age, mainly because my dad would occasionally break out spontaneous renditions of Ol’ Man River. I knew nothing of his social activism until my friend sent me an mp3 of “Let Robeson Sing” by the Manic Street Preachers. It’s the best song by a long way on a pretty terrible album, and quickly tells the story of Robeson’s “voice and vision” and his suppression by the House Commission for Un-American Activities, who confiscated his passport, placed FBI agents within his shadow at all times, and embarked upon a campaign of ostracism until Robeson became all-but-forgotten.

It may seem a strange way for someone to learn of Robeson, but as Aluko told us, among groups such as the Welsh miners and trade unionists, for whom Robeson did so much, he was never forgotten.

 

The Freedom Train

Back in Preston, we cannot turn away from any moment of Robeson’s life – we are there in the front row of his performances, and we are there with the marooned performer in the years of his lowest ebbs. Aluko takes us through the most difficult moments of Robeson’s existence, his exclusion, his attempted suicide, and the loss of Essie to cancer, with visceral intensity. On a rainy evening in Preston, we are witness to the tragedy of Robeson’s life as we are to his spine-tingling vocals and world-conquering successes. We watch as the ageing Robeson comes to terms with his anonymity as the Civil Rights Movement accelerates in the 1960s. Malcolm X is gunned down, and Dr. King follows. A young reporter traipses around Harlem asking the “man on the street” for their thoughts of their activism, and in this moment Robeson becomes just another black New Yorker.

“Looks like I’ve been assassinated too,” the old singer quips.

Aluko later tells us of the theory that Malcolm was assassinated just as he began to consider international socialist ideas. As Martin’s dream increasingly took on notions of black liberation through economic redistribution alongside cultural anti-racism, he was taken out too. As the great pillars of American civil rights began to speak back at the infiltration of institutional racism within every aspect of American society, they became more dangerous than ever before. “In a way, they became too much like Paul Robeson,” Aluko explains. The McCarthyists had already taken care of the old singer – gagged by passport restrictions, discredited to his allies, dogged by the disintegration of his mental health in the face of this ubiquitous ostracism, Robeson had been silenced.

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Aluko receives a standing ovation.

But in Call Mr Robeson, he takes his place as one figure in the pantheon of anti-racist activists. The Freedom Train comes zooming along the track, gleaming in the sunshine for white and black, not stopping at no stations marked colored nor white, just stopping in the fields in the broad daylight. It’s a journey that has been carried part of the way by Toussaint, by Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Rosa Parks, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin and so many more. In this moment, Paul and Essie Robeson became once again a part of this great tradition.

 

The Ol’ Man River, Just Keeps Rolling Along

Robeson’s most (in)famous concert performance was at Peekskill, New York, on the 4th September 1949. The event had been cancelled the previous week, as gangs of white supremacists and anti-Semites had laid siege to the venue, tormenting concert-goers and lynching effigies of Robeson from nearby branches. The following week, Robeson arrived, himself protected by one human chain composed of trade unionists of all races, the crowd perimetered by a second ring. Years ago, Aluko recalls Paul Robeson Jr. was asked, of all his father’s renditions of Ol’ Man River, which was his favourite. It was here, he said, as the police helicopter that had hovered on the horizon approached toward the concert stage, whirring ever nearer as the song kicked into its concluding crescendo. As the drone grew louder, so did Robeson’s voice. The Ol’ Man River kept rolling along, not to be dammed.

This night, as I watched this concert performed in front of me, as the helicopter came closer through some unseen speaker behind me, I sat on the edge of my seat (and I was not the only one.) Robeson watched above him nervously – I knew that this concert was not Robeson’s end, but would a sniper in the helicopter take a shot at him? Maybe there was some gap in my knowledge on his life, maybe he was shot once and recovered. I suddenly didn’t know how this moment played out. The helicopter grew so loud, but so did Aluko’s voice, and like Robeson’s son all those decades ago, I was captivated.

Paul Robeson, it is said, was the first to perform at the Sydney Opera House. Before construction was complete, Robeson stood beside the site and sung for the construction workers as they slowly pieced together this Australian icon. Aluko dreams of one day being able to perform Call Mr Robeson within the Opera House. It would be some event to hear Robeson sing once again on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

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