As an old man, Paul Robeson was stopped in the street by a young journalist doing vox pops. Assuming he was being asked his opinion because he had been recognised, it slowly dawned on him he’d simply been taken for an average man on the street. He even had to spell out his name to the reporter.
But if there was one thing to take away from Tayo Aluko’s 75 minute one-man show Call Mr Robeson: A Life, with Songs, it was that there was never anything even remotely average about Robeson, the American singer, actor, socialist and activist who endured a lifetime of struggle in his fight for African American equality. A tender, well-researched and impressively performed piece, it took the audience through Robeson’s remarkable life interspersed with flashbacks of oratory and song that worked very well.
Aluko (pictured below), a former architect who moved to Liverpool from Nigeria, clearly shares his hero’s thirst for knowledge (although surely few could beat Robeson’s claim to be able to hold conversations in 25 languages), and that palpable sense of connection has enabled the actor to really tap into the character. The show was littered with the singer’s famous show tunes, including Ol’ Man River, and the Spirituals he popularised as a way of communicating and educating his black and white audiences. The performances were deeply moving.
The show didn’t shy away from Robeson’s flaws either, and made reference to his womanising (remaining married to his wife Essie throughout), depression (he attempted suicide), and sometime political naiveté (he expressed admiration for the Stalinist regime). But what an incredible life story.
Call Mr Robeson was first performed in 2008 and has been a work in progress for even longer. Aluko was joined on stage by pianist Michael Conliffe, who enhanced the piece greatly with his musical accompaniment. The point the playwright made by including the vox pop anecdote was vitally important – with the passing of time, Robeson’s story and contribution to what became the civil rights movement is fading into history and cannot and should not be forgotten. In that respect, Call Mr Robeson is a very significant, not to mention inspirational, piece.
After a standing ovation, Aluko gave a question and answer session, which proved to be just as informative and touching as the rest of the show had been. There was a celebratory atmosphere as the actor was certainly amongst friends, and two families in the audience proudly introduced their fathers, who had seen Robeson perform live in Liverpool in the 1940s. He finished with a final request for a song and performed Trees, perhaps the last thing anyone will see on the Everyman stage. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s something in my eye…