On Tuesday (8/14/18) afternoon, I accepted an invitation from the Jackson County Fuel Committee (JCFC) to attend the final performance of “Call Mr. Robeson”, an one-person play arranged by Nigeran actor/singer, Tayo Aluko. I knew from an email circulated by the Racial Equity Coalition (REC) the production was in town. Apparently, someone visited JCFC headquarters to purposely offer members tickets. I’m hardheaded at times, however, I can read the Universe well enough to walk through an open door when one is offered.
I used Google Maps to find the Community Center Hall. It is across the street from Lithia Park. I thought, “Talk about the Wild Wild West. Little House on the Praire, anyone? Was this one of the first buildings built for the original railroad town version of downtown?”
Ashland local, Nina Council, greeted me at a table laden with “Call Mr. Robeson” fliers and a two-paged word document containing, in part, the following words:
“Flying into Ashland from further North the other day, the haze from above and the smell of smoke once we landed, with no sign of forest fires in the immediate vicinity, made me marvel at how things going on hundreds of miles away can have undesirable consequences on the daily lives of people unrelated to those events.
So, it is in the world of politics, and Americans often forget how their country has been responsible for, or contributed directly to smoke, ashes and rubble around the world for centuries. The Middle East, Latin Ameria, Africa, South East Asia – no region escaped the benign influence of United States foreign policy as forged in the boardrooms of Washington and/or Wall Street.
As new fires erupt in the forests of California, your leadership announces plans for the expansion of the military budget to combat threats perceived to be coming from outer space! Meanwhile, here on the ground, racial tensions continue to increase, with White Supremacists being given the freedom to vent their hate on the streets of the capital, with the suggestion that they have the backing of #45 adn those around him.”
Aluko wrote those words. Paul Robeson would be proud that he is being remembered in this way. It is one thing to act, to imitate a historical personality for a one-person play, it is quite another to project said personality before you as the hook to inspire an audience. Upon entering the Community Center Hall, I did not expect a political statement from a traveling artist. It is not an easy task to sell politics. It complicates the already audrous task of booking a tour. Yet, this is the task, 56 year old Tayo Aluko is taking on.
He knows the play is good. “CALL MR ROBESON has won numerous awards at festivals in the UK and Canada, and has taken him [Aluko] around the UK, and USA, Canada, Jamaica and Nigeria, including New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2012.”
After making plans for over four months, Aluko left his home in Liverpool, UK, last month, playing Boston as his first American stop. Ticket sales are slow in Canada right now, however, I think that is to be expected. Money usually changes hands at the last minute. I am definitely trained not to purchase until there is confirmation the artist is in town.
Aluko purposely selected Ashland as the second stop. From the stage, he said, explicitly, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is playing Othello. For his generation, Paul Robeson is Othello. He imagined the public memory of Robeson playing Othello would would help ticket sales. This tour is teaching him the “only adversity or limitation is from people not wanting the subject matter.” Surely, in a small town where the one play which dominated Robeson’s career is being produced, Aluko would find an audience.
Yes, he did. It took four days of heavy fliering, however, from the stage he thanked the 53 Ashland locals who gathered to witness his 90 minute mixture of monologues and songs.
Considering the subject matter, the 2 pm ambiance of the Community Center Hall was perfect. The rustic feel of the place made it easy to imagine Robeson selecting it in 1949 to host small farmers or migrant workers. Big blue curtains were pulled together and pinned in an effort to block out the afternoon sun. The floor creaked whenever someone got up to visit the restroom. Classic.
Aluko begins the play with a heavy-foot, dramatic intro, where you hear every step he takes, while his beautiful baritone belts out a rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Robeson, respendlent in a grey suit, is carrying his chair like Christ carrying His cross. So fluid is Robeson between song and storytelling, that it took the audience 40 minute to catch its rythm and begin participating. Soon, every success Robeson celebrated, the audience did too. Applause followed every song. The labor song, “Joe Hill”, almost received a standing ovation.
Paul Robeson is a part of African America’s seventh generation. He is born on April 9, 1898. He saw sharecropping exploitation, the Red Summer, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. He did not become an Ancestor until January 23, 1976.
He first made a name for himself at Rutgers University, under segregation, as a football player. He stood a solid 6’4, 200 pounds. It was a brutal experience, physically and emotionally.
The trade-off was exposure. The Univesity provided him a platform to display his many talents. Robeson was a multi-genius, like most personalities remembered in “Black History” one had to be a multi-genius to receive enough attention to reach celebrity status.
This is all before movies took over popular imagination. Robeson excels in theatre and music, publishing over 200 songs in his career. His first record comes out in 1925. Because of the violence visited upon “Negroes”, Robeson became political. He choose to side with the communists and socialists, after exposure to their economic analysis in 1920s London. (Remember, he could make good money outside of America in theatre.)
A 1934 trip to Russia changes Robeson’s life. He says it was in the presence of the Russian people that he finally felt treated like a full human being. His statements lauding “working people’s rights” causes a stir in America. He is warned by a manager politics will eventually affect his entertainment career. Robeson ignores this advice. He records a song, “Ballad of America”, which is a huge hit in 1942.
At a Kansas City concert, Robeson abandons the stage in protest of a segregated audience. He is coaxed back on stage, and in compromise only sings the songs of his people, like The Battle of Jericho.
Needless to say, statements connecting the struggle of all working people, Negro and White, along with displays of protest behavior gets Robeson brought before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. He is asked if he is a card carrying member of the Communist Party. How else was he going to answer? That resulted in nine years of house arrest as well as the revoking of his passport.
Meanwhile the Civil Rights Movement begins and the audience learns that Robeson is one of Malcolm X’s heroes.
The play ends too soon with Robeson’s death 78 years after it started.
Aluko took questions after the play. He encouraged the audience to contact him via email and tell others what impact the play made.
Aluko’s next American stop is November 12, Alphabet City in Pittsburgh, PA.
To contact the artist directly: www.tayoalukoandfriends.com