As the shortest month of the year (ironically reserved for black history) draws to a close, and theater fans worldwide mourn the loss of black theatrical icon Ossie Davis, it seems fitting that another black theatrical pioneer is honored onstage.
Local Detroiters Lou Beatty Jr. and vocalist Carl Clendenning star in the dynamic rendition of Philip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson at the Plowshares Theatre.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1977 with James Earl Jones as the lead, Paul Robeson tells the inspiring story of legendary scholar-athlete, activist and theatrical star Paul Robeson, chronicling his life from his rural New Jersey upbringing to his adult years as a renowned actor and champion of social justice. Directed locally for the first time by Detroit native Gary Anderson, Paul Robeson stands out as a captivating two-person play — with Beatty offering a standout performance.
Director Anderson has skillfully edited Dean’s play down to a manageable two hours, finding tactful ways of arranging the narration so that Robeson’s triumphs against brutal odds are portrayed by Lou Beatty Jr. without boasting.
“Paul Robeson was a great American — who happened to be black,” Beatty says. “He stood up for the downtrodden and the spreading of wealth, from dockworkers in Russia to the oppressed peoples of South Africa, and most Americans don’t even know who he is.”
William Gary, an 84-year-old Detroiter whose mother was friends with Robeson, remembers the many visits the stage legend made to the Gary residence in the ’30s. “Back in those days Detroit was worse than Mississippi,” Gary says. “Paul Robeson couldn’t even go downtown and get served at a restaurant. He spent most of his time with us and Erma Henderson smack-dab in the [Black] Bottom. He would come over and tell jokes and have everybody cracking up. What stood out to me is that he always left something for the young people when he was here — songbooks, manuscripts or a good quote — that’s just the way he was.”
Born in 1898, Robeson became an All-American athlete during his years as the first black collegiate football player at Rutgers University. But he combined his sharp intellect and spellbinding oratory skills to forgo professional sports (which were still segregated) and graduate from the Columbia School of Law at the age of 25. Subsequently hired as a token black lawyer at a New York firm, yet denied the opportunity to litigate in the courtroom by his employers, Robeson quit practicing law and stumbled into theater, using his baritone voice to sing popular slave labor songs on stage. Known for singing such show tunes and spirituals such as “Old Man River” and “Steal Away,” his ability to hit deep notes and dignify his characters made him a star.
What followed was a brilliant career as an actor and concert singer that spanned nearly 40 years. His theatrical successes were his performances in plays Porgy and Bess, Emperor Jones and Othello in which he was lauded for his vibrant stage presence.
While it must be difficult to portray the life of a dynamic individual in a two-person play, Beatty nails Robeson’s mannerisms and stature in this production with uncanny precision. Beatty’s voice and bearing however do not match the Robeson living in the memory of those who heard him, so Anderson has wisely not insisted that the actor try for an impersonation. During songs, Clendenning, who says his voice has often been compared with Robeson’s in the past, hits many of the play’s deep notes. With this, Beatty and Clendenning are able to find a much-needed balance on stage.
To attract younger viewers, Anderson reached out to nearly 300 schools in metro Detroit, inviting students to see the play at a lowered price. Unfortunately, most schools could not justify the spending. “That’s what happens when we think it’s more important to use tax dollars to build prisons instead of giving kids more opportunities for cultural enrichment,” Anderson says.
Anderson’s production of Paul Robeson is a must-see for Detroiters who were lifelong fans of Robeson’s work, as well as folks who only recognize his face from a U.S. postage stamp. Regardless of which category you fit in, this play promises to entertain and inspire.
7:30 p.m., Wednesday-Friday, Feb. 23-25, 3 and 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 26, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27, at Plowshares (2870 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit; 313-872-0279). Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org