BWW Reviews: CALL MR ROBESON, The Unicorn Theatre, October 19 2011
Before Muhammad Ali used his extraordinary courage and charisma to reach millions through sport and television, Paul Robeson, another African-American with immense reserves of courage and charisma fuelled by a burning sense of injustice, reached millions through music and film.
Unlike Ali, whose sharp intelligence had been honed on the streets of Louisville Kentucky, Robeson was educated in elite universities and read voraciously, determined to form his own views from the evidence available.
Paul Robeson - college football hero, top recording artist, film star and an intellectual, socialist, black man - that was never going to make for an easy ride in an America still living under the quasi-Apartheid Jim Crow laws that persisted into the 1960s.
Tayo Aluko's one man show (with fine support at the piano from Michael Conliffe) captures the essence of one of the twentieth century's most remarkable lives. With songs like Steal Away and Old Man River sung with all of the passion his subject brought to them, Tayo plays Robeson as an old man looking back on the events and the men (and the many women) that shaped his life.
From his father's words that inspired him to stand up to the jock bullies in football trials, to his radicalisation in the company of striking Welsh miners, to his visits to the Soviet Union and his de facto house arrest in the McCarthy witch hunts, to the trauma that state persecution brought him and his devastation at the death of a wife to whom he was seldom faithful, Tayo inhabits the skin of a man determined not to be judged by that skin.
Paul Robeson's life would make for compulsive viewing at any time, but, with crowds in the City a stone's throw from the Unicorn Theatre, protesting against exactly the same injustices of rampant global capitalism that animated Robeson's politics, his brave radicalism is perfectly attuned with the times. In Tayo Aluko, Robeson has an interpreter who has taken on the task of capturing a unique talent... and succeeded.
If you are familiar with Paul Robeson's life, you will leave the show with a renewed respect for the man - if you are unfamiliar with his life, well, you really shouldn't be. Either way, this show is a triumph for its writer-performer and does justice to a huge figure in twentieth century culture and politics.