Thursday, 18 October 2018

Tale of passion, talent and defiance

AN award-winning play about an African-American actor and civil rights campaigner comes to the Kenton next week ahead of its

AN award-winning play about an African-American actor and civil rights campaigner comes to the Kenton next week ahead of its West End début.

Call Mr Robeson — A Life With Songs is a tribute in words and music to the actor and singer who was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement in the United States around the middle of last century.

The show, performed by Liverpool-based playwright and singer Tayo Aluko with piano accompaniment by Michael Conliffe, received a standing ovation at the Carnegie Hall in New York last February. It is primarily a monologue interspersed with songs describing Robeson’s colourful life.

Paul Robeson, who died aged 77 in 1976, was a man of many talents.

He won an academic scholarship to Rutgers University, before attending Columbia Law School. Around this time he also played in the National Football League.

Robeson lived in London for several years, where his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello was widely admired. He then returned to the States and became a film star with roles in Show Boat, among others.

By now he was becoming more politically active, speaking out against inequalities suffered not only by black men but many other social groups as well.

These views — together with his pro-Soviet stance — led to him being summoned to appear before McCarthy’s Senate House Un-American Activities Committee, and the play includes his defiant testimony to them.

Despite patriotically supporting his country during the Second World War he later found it difficult to obtain work and his income plummeted. His health declined and he lived out his days alone in Philadelphia.

Robeson gained a reputation for his oratory, which is recreated in this show by Aluko. In between the speeches he will sing well-known numbers such as Ol’ Man River, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Shenandoah.

Aluko said: “Henley-on Thames doesn’t immediately strike one as a hotbed of radical communism (which is what many associate Paul Robeson with) but I expect there will be many who appreciate a really good story and wonderful music, and also understand that then, as now, a very good man could have been the subject of extreme media bias.

“His story is very much one for our troubled times.”

* The show is directed by Olusola Oyeleye and designed by Phil Newman. It plays at the Kenton Theatre for one night only on Friday, April 5. Box office (01491) 575698 or visit

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