There must have been moments when I felt the sorrows of a motherless child, but what I most remember from my youngest days was an abiding sense of comfort and security. I got plenty of mothering, not only from Pop and my brothers and sister when they were home, but from the whole of our close-knit community...if I were to try to put down the names of all the folks who helped to raise me, it would read like a roster of Negro Princeton... Hard-working people, and poor, most of them, in worldly goods--but how rich in compassion! How filled with the goodness of humanity and the spiritual steel forged by centuries of oppression!... Here in this little hemmed-in world where home must be theatre and concert hall and social center, there was a warmth of song. Songs of love and longing, songs of trials and triumphs, deep-flowing rivers and rollicking brooks, hymn-songs and ragtime ballads, gospels and blues, and the healing comfort to be found in the illimitable sorrow of the spirituals. --Paul Robeson, in Here I Stand
This passage, taken from Paul Robeson's 1958 autobiography, goes a long way toward explaining what drove and inspired this richly talented, complex man. He is now remembered by many as a sort of martyr-hero, this one-time darling of the pre-War theater and concert world who spurned wealth and acclaim abroad to return home in the early 1940s and take up the grueling, uphill fight for racial equality and justice in his native America. But here, at 60, Robeson is thinking back to his childhood; to what it was to grow up in lily-white, aristocratic Princeton, New Jersey, in the small enclave of black laborers and domestics that centered largely around his father's church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Zion. "In a way I was 'adopted' by all these good people," Robeson remembers, "...There was the honest joy of laughter in these homes, folk-wit and story, hearty appetites for life as for the nourishing greens and black-eyed peas and cornmeal bread they shared with me."
Paul Robeson spent his whole life in pursuit of this ideal of community and brotherhood, this vision of sharing and joyous community that he had known as a child in the black quarter of Princeton. From this supportive, close-knit, hemmed-in sphere, Robeson stretched his horizons further and further outward, crossing oceans, making friends, disarming bigots with his undeniable talent and charm. He strove to make first the white world, then the international cultural world, every bit as much his home as the living rooms of his poor black relatives in New Jersey.
In high school, he won a full scholarship to Rutgers in a statewide competition. Overcoming the fears and prejudices of the Rutgers coach, he fought his way onto the varsity football squad and was named all-American in his senior year, winning the love and respect of his teammates and his school. He went to Columbia Law School in the hopes of someday practicing international law.
But he ran up against the race barrier in the legal profession, and he took up acting in all-black shows in Harlem. There he caught the eye of a Broadway producer who hired him to star in a British production of "Showboat." From the early 1930s until the outbreak of World War II, Robeson lived with his wife in England, mixing with the British aristocracy and winning the hearts of audiences in cities all over Europe to whom he introduced for the first time the strange, soulful, moving experience of black folk music and spirituals.
It was in England, at the hub of the British Empire, that Robeson discovered Africa, and learned about the black Africans' struggle against European colonialism. He stayed up nights talking with Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, who were then students in London. He also witnessed the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany at close range; in 1938 Robeson went to Spain and sang for anti-Franco International Brigade, and was named one of only three honorary members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. His political consciousness aroused and troubled by Franco, Hitler and African colonialism, Robeson began to look back across the Atlantic to America, to the continuing plight of black Americans, and the battle that still needed waging for his people. "I was born with the rise of fascism," he was to say later.
Robeson became acutely aware that he was a man of the world at a time when most of the good things the world had to offer were denied to all but a handful of other black Americans. So he gave up his comfortable niche in the European artistic community to crusade for a future in which all blacks could participate in the community of man. More and more convinced that this community would be the work of the common people, the poor, working people he had met all over the globe, and impressed with the Soviet Union's championing of black nationalist movements in Africa, Robeson became a socialist. Never a very sophisticated and self-critical socialist, to be sure; the leftist Harlem newspaper he published through the 1950s often presented facile and sometimes unrealistic analyses of black urban politics and culture. But Robeson never was a keen student of historical change; his Marxism stemmed from that same universalist vision, that dream that all other blacks might someday feel, like him, part of the family of man.
Ironically, the price that Robeson paid for that vision was his own freedom to perform and travel as a man of all nations. In the heat of McCarthyism, the State Department began denying him visas to travel abroad to accept the performing offers that continued to pour in from around the globe. On June 12, 1956, he was called up before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and badgered about his ties to the Communist Party. America gave Robeson little peace in his last decade, and he had every right to turn bitter and resentful. But it is not clear how angry he really did become, for his autobiography is still infused with eager optimism, with an idealism that retains more than a touch of the innocence of his youth. He ends the book with an eloquent expression of the dream he still clung to:
To be free--to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil, to give our children every opportunity in life--that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny we hold in our hands.
To portray Robeson's odyssey on the stage, to try to convey his aspirations and his frustrations, to dramatize what Robeson meant when at the end of his life he quoted a statement by Frederick Douglass--"A man is worked on by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstances, but his circumstances carve him out as well"--is a difficult touchy task. To say that playwright Philip Hayes Dean's one-man play, Paul Robeson, starring James Earl Jones and directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, does as sensitive a job as could have been done, given the format and the conventions of the theater, may appear too easy. For this production has upset many of the people who were closest to Robeson, including his son, who has denounced the play, and a close friend who led a band of picketers who marched in front of the Colonial Theater when the play opened in Boston two weeks ago.
It is hard to see how Paul Robeson could be more faithful, more meaningful, more true to Robeson's spirit, without dragging on to the kind of lengths that would be needed to truly plumb the depths of his complex, conflicted personality, or else haranguing the audience with political invective. Neither of which would sell tickets. So, predictably, Paul Robeson simply cashes in on conventions now well established in a recent rash of one-man shows--a recognizable actor in the starring role, plenty of humorous or touching memories, an emphasis on personality rather than on social forces and constraints--in short, an entertaining, winking, relationship between the actor and the audience.
All there is to say about Paul Robeson can thus be summed up in a few lines. The play follows Robeson's life chronologically and, in terms of events, faithfully. James Earl Jones, as Robeson, is irresistably charming, though perhaps too irresistably charming, he makes such clever fun of the bigotry and ignorance that surrounded Robeson as he ventured into the world in the first half of the play that it is difficult to fully believe in the rage he vents in the second half. Jones imitates Robeson's resounding baritone well, if not remarkably, and also powerfully enacts a scene from Othello.
Yet there remains a feeling that the play does not truly do justice to the enormous scope of Robeson's life and his vision. On stage, Robeson the man essentially becomes James Earl Jones the actor: a prepossessing, engaging man, graciously humble about having led a life more inspiring than those of his audience. The playwrite, Philip Hayes Dean, defends this predictable, heart-warming treatment by pointing out that "if you take anybody's life and put it on stage, you have to make him charming; you're asking people to sit with him for two hours." And Paul Robeson never bores. But Dean adds that he deliberately avoided a more thorough examination of Robeson's anger and political formation because "racism before the '60s was a comparatively simple enemy; now people want to understand the complexities of race relations in modern society." Unfortunately, Paul Robeson never really gets around to shedding light on that problem. It doesn't seem likely that a one-man show could ever provide the vehicle for such an investigation, but it will be nice when American theater can afford to probe further under the skin of a man like Robeson.