Wednesday 28 October 2009

The Artist Who Took Sides

Despite still feeling a bit under the weather, I headed over to Stratford Circus this evening to see Call Mr Robeson, the excellent Tayo Aluko's one-man tribute to the black American actor and singer.

I'm really glad that I made it - it was a wonderful performance, one firmly rooted in Robeson's socialist politics that began with his contact with Welsh coal miners in the late 1920s, whom he met whilst performing Showboat in London. His involvement with trade unions in Britain led to solidarity with the Republican cause in Spain, trips to Russia and staunch (and largely uncritical) support for the Soviet Union, the basis for his eventual persecution by the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the late 1940s.

Robeson was prevented from travelling, his passport taken from him and he found it increasingly difficult to record or perform. In an act of defiance that was typical of his refusal to compromise, he sang at a union-organised concert on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border to a 20,000 strong Canadian audience. After six years, Robeson was finally allowed to return to the UK and to travel extensively around the world, before ill health led to his return to the US.

Tayo Aluko's performance of a artist who always took sides, an activist who preceded the civil rights movement of the 1960s but outlived both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (who had asked to meet Robeson shortly before his assassination), captures wonderfully the personality and history of a pioneering black socialist and musician whose achievements only really began to be celebrated after Robeson's death in 1976.

There's only one more show in London, this Friday at the Greenwich Theatre, before it heads to the States. It's well worth checking out.


Chris Hall said...

Sounds absolutely fantastic! My favourite recording artist he was, his biography is on my list of books to read next.

Anonymous said...

"the basis for his eventual persecution by the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the late 1940s".

I read Robeson's transcript when he was interrogated at the HUAC some time ago and had another look today. It is powerful and eloquent.

“You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves”

"This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. . . . "

"Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union, and I would not argue with a representative of the people who, in building America, wasted sixty to a hundred million lives of my people, black people drawn from Africa on the plantations. You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please."

Anonymous said...

Btw: hope you feel better soon.

Kevin said...

I see the News from Nowhere Club are running a workshop on 14 November entitled "The Life and Times of Paul Robeson" in Leytonstone - see

Thanks Louise, I am feeling better than I was at the start of the week, but I still feel like I've been run over by a truck...

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