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Call Mr Robeson
Published on Sunday, 09 May 2010

Last night’s audience stamped their feet as they applauded Tayo Aluko’s easy performance, capturing the life of black actor/singer Paul Robeson. Robeson is renowned for his 1920’s rendition of Ol’ Man River in the musical Showboat, and accompanied by piano, Tayo Aluko delivered this and plenty of other songs from the deep south.  Performed in a beautiful bass voice which surely did justice to Robeson’s, the songs were carefully chosen to complement the narration, and enhanced this thought-provoking evening’s entertainment.

I had been attracted to the play – as I suspect was a significant proportion of the audience – because of Robeson’s ‘activism’ on behalf of black people suffering discrimination in 20th-century America. The venue is The Old Courthouse, an appropriate auditorium for the subject matter, and as an audience we looked down upon the figure of Aluko in the pit.

He made imaginative use of a limited range of props. The stage was scattered with memorabilia and photos from Robeson’s theatrical and family life, suitably lit in gentle sepia.  Box files of documents witnessing Robeson’s reputation with the authorities served as a soapbox, from which Aluko recalled controversial events – including his interrogation as suspected communist, and his historic role as the first black actor to play Othello.

What became clear was that Robeson was in fact an ordinary man, who was unwilling to simply accept his lot (which at that time included prohibition from even seeking to register for the vote) and instead railed against it. This perhaps explains his comparative absence from the list of activists recorded in the annals of history, and by extension the common consciousness.  Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, for example, deliberately constructed their lives around dedicated resistance to discrimination. The difference engendered by Robeson came instead from pursuing matters important to his fulfilling his personal ambitions – things as simple as obtaining a passport.

Robeson’s story pays tribute to a whole population of ordinary people worldwide, whose contribution is no less valuable for being borne out of indignation at the discrimination they personally suffer. This is what makes this an inspiring story; and while I suspect the foot-stamping said more about the liberal audience than the story I heard told, that shouldn’t detract from my view that this is a show worth seeing.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.