Call Mr Robeson

In view of the recent violence in Charlottesville, KKK sympathisers in the White House and, even on our end of the pond, much of the sentiment behind Brexit, a discussion of the inherent racism in our world could not be more pertinent. In Tayo Aluko’s inspiring piece of new biographical musical theatre, we meet Paul Robeson: African American Singer, film star, Socialist Internationalist, legal scholar, womaniser, athlete, orator and activist dedicated to “Changing the way people think with music”. Aluko likewise strives to change the way people think with his own art, and in Call Mr Robeson delivers a tacit indictment of our own times, which bear a terrifying resemblance to segregated post-war America. Our fear-mongering tabloid press and our right-wing government may also share a mentality with the US administration during the Cold War. However, the show is not without its optimism; Robeson is a truly electrifying and motivating figure, who shows us, that despite the great obstacles he faced, solidarity and defiance can win the day.

A touching, mournful, edifying outcry for solidarity and compassion

With a brilliant passion, a sensitivity for detail and, of course, his sonorous singing voice, Aluko, who plays Robeson himself, takes us through the life and times of the man. In a compelling hour and a half, we move from thrilling insights into his famous portrayal of Joe in the 1936 movie Show Boat, to his discovery of socialism, to his famous condemnation of the Cold War at the Paris Peace Conference, to visits to Europe and his beloved USSR, through several romances, to his legal battles with the Mccarthyist government over his communist sympathies.

The audience cannot help but be enthralled by Aluko throughout, which is rare for a one-man show, having a masterly ability to bring his stories to life, evoking humour and joy at times and at others devastation. The play’s staging sees Robeson surrounded by fragments, old photos, curious objects, flags, socialist insignias, which perhaps suggests that what we have left of great people when they die are disparate fragments, disconnections and misconceptions. In Call Mr. Robeson, Aluko restores Robeson to life in all his fullness at a time we need him most, connecting these fragments.

Robeson is a figure whose perseverance, defiance and unmatched talent is infectious. Aluko amazingly replicates the polymath’s deep and expressive voice, and one cannot helped but be moved almost to tears by his rendering of Ol’ Man River, a song of overwhelming grief but uplifting determination, the song which made Robeson famous. The emotional climax of the piece comes from the tale of Robeson’s singing of said song at an event which turned into the violent Peekskill Riots where Civil Rights activists were attacked by fascists and racists (sound familiar?). The way Aluko relates the story of Robeson’s refusal to sing in front of a segregated audience is equally arresting.

A touching, mournful, edifying outcry for solidarity and compassion, Call Mr Robeson may also be enjoyed purely for its bewitching music, Aluko’s voice soaring before the audience over outstanding piano accompaniment from Angus Carmichael. An unmissable show, critically important and beautifully executed.

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The Blurb

Ten years live! Premiered at Fringe 2007. Paul Robeson is a world-famous actor, singer and civil-rights campaigner. When he gets too radical and outspoken for the establishment's liking, he is branded a traitor to his country, harassed and denied opportunities to perform or travel. This rollercoaster journey through Robeson’s remarkable life highlights how his pioneering and heroic political activism led many to describe him as the forerunner of the civil rights movement. It features some famous songs (including a dramatic rendition of Ol’ Man River), speeches and a spectacularly defiant testimony to the US Senate.**** (Guardian).