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Paul Robeson

by Philip Hayes Dean

COMPANY : Georgia Shakespeare [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Conant Performing Arts Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 4004

SHOWING : March 25, 2011 - March 27, 2011



Visiting artist Avery Brooks stars in this Georgias Shakespeare sponsored visit of "Paul Robeson," Philip Hayes Dean's portrait of the singer/activist.

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In the Presence of Greatness
by Dedalus
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
“I have discovered there are two forces in the world. Evil and the struggle against evil. And where I have found evil, I have struggled against it. And it has been that struggle that has kept my hope alive”

Born in 1898, Paul Leroy Robeson went on to blaze trails and ruffle feathers. Winning an athletic scholarship to Rutgers University, he was one of the first African Americans to make the all-star college football team, one of the first to play Othello on the professional stage, one of the first to pass the New York Bar. He was also repelled by his own country’s treatment of his race, and became an ex-patriot just when his musical career was reaching its peak.

Always outspoken, he alienated conservative leaders, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Commission, had his passport revoked, was blacklisted by the recording industry, and was not above walking out of concerts into which blacks were not allowed.

And he lived to have the “last laugh,” as his sheer talent and idealism seemed to break down all the barriers he came across.

In 1978, Philip Hayes Dean wrote a (basically) one-man play in which Robeson avoids a Carnegie Hall concert in his honor, and chooses instead to tell us of his life and struggles and triumphs. James Earl Jones played Robeson to almost universal acclaim.

Now, Georgia Shakespeare has brought Avery Brooks’ production to the Oglethorpe Conant stage for a (too) brief one-weekend run. This is a breathtakingly powerful performance, a riveting production, and a welcome glimpse into the life of a great man, one whom the conservative pundits of today would quite angrily dismiss as an “enemy to America.”

This is a long show, going into great detail and filled with many anecdotes and digressions. We hear about his experiences with racism at Rutgers, racism that quickly transforms into respect and (almost) acceptance. We hear about his shock at how returning WWI veterans are treated in the South, returning home “to be castrated, lynched, tied to trees and burned to death – and sometimes in the uniforms of their country.” We hear about his days at a prestigious New York law firm, how he was kept from the courtroom, but his well-written arguments were used by the white lawyers of the firm. We hear about the courtship of his future wife, Eslanda Cordozo Goode (“…it was the strange combination of genes. After all – an African, Spanish, Jewish Sephardic married to an African, Cherokee, white Quaker – in an African, Methodist, Episcopal, Zion Church. I decided I could never see her again.” Cue wedding music.).

Of course we hear about his early successes in the plays of Eugene O-Neill, his triumph in “Showboat,” and his “escape” to London. We hear the tragic story of his German Manager’s daughter lost in the holocaust, his ill-treatment at the hands of the Germans and his acceptance at the hands of the Russians. And we hear about his run-in with HUAC, his struggles with his own government, and his victories over them all.

Mr. Brooks grabs us from the start and never lets us go, keeping us mesmerized through two 70-minute acts. His is a deep and authoritative voice, quick to rise in passionate anger, quick to melt into the music that was at the core of Robeson’s life. His uncannily accurate renditions of many of Robeson’s popular hits sent most of the audience into the GSF gift shop for his CD during intermission, and his easy mimicry of the others in Robeson’s life come across less as “voice caricatures” than as Mr. Robeson himself showing us how he heard those voices. Although, strictly speaking, he is not alone on stage (Ernie Scott plays Robeson’s long-time accompanist Lawrence Brown and provides a few key dialogue moments, specifically the Chairman of HUAC interrogating Robeson), this is Mr. Brooks’ play, and his work achieves true greatness. I daresay, even those who come to get their “geek on” by seeing “Deep Space Nine’s” Captain Sisko will come away with a profound respect for the range and power of this performance.

So, as I’m writing this, there is only one more performance tomorrow afternoon. Trust me, you should not miss it. Reading the play made me feel I was in the presence of a great man. Seeing it in production confirmed that feeling – it is a great performance in a play about a great man. Being in the presence of such greatness can only give me hope for the future of our theatre community.

-- Brad Rudy (BK



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