On a February day earlier this year, 83 years after singer Paul Robeson made his big debut at Carnegie Hall, Tayo Aluko performed his original work, Call Mr. Robeson: A Life, with Song, on that very same stage. It was Aluko's birthday, and the former architect had been performing the biographical drama since 2007 in preparation for this momentous show.
At one time, Robeson was one of the most famous and revered talents in the world, but his radical politics — namely a support for communism — hampered his career. "The establishment did all they could to bury him alive," Aluko says. And that's Aluko's key motivation for telling the world about this American Renaissance man.
A native of Nigeria, Aluko attended boarding school and university in England. "I am primarily a singer, and in 1995 in Liverpool, I sang the spiritual 'My Lord, What a Morning,'" he says. "A woman from the audience told me afterward that I reminded her of Paul Robeson. Not knowing who he was, I researched him and felt compelled to create this show. In 2005, I began writing it."
Now Aluko travels the world, continually building and performing his one-man show featuring classic Robeson songs like "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," "Steal Away," and "Joe Hill." Teaming up with his Carnegie Hall pianist, Gregory Thompson of Charlotte, this year's Piccolo is Aluko's first visit to the American South.
Call Mr. Robeson spans the historic figure's life from the age of six to his retirement in the 1960s. Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, N.J., to a father who escaped slavery, attended Lincoln University, and became a Presbyterian minister. His mother was a Quaker mulatto socialite from Philadelphia.
Robeson exhibited exceptional talent and intellect as a youth, earning a full scholarship to Rutgers University. "As a student, Robeson protested racism and civil injustice for African Americans," Aluko says, "but he was not a political activist until later, about 1928." After briefly playing professional football and marrying Eslanda Goode, a medical chemist, Robeson graduated from Columbia Law School in 1923. In his free time, he performed professionally in New York as the Harlem Renaissance attracted black Americans from all over the country.
Already a well-known singer and actor in New York, Robeson's career boomed when he landed roles in shows like All God's Chillun Got Wings, The Emperor Jones, and Showboat. Jerome Kern wrote "Ol' Man River" specifically for Robeson's rich bass voice, and it quickly became his signature song, helping to make him one of the most popular and recognizable performers in Europe and the U.S. at the time.
Handsome and ingenious, Robeson was admired and hailed all around the world. So how is it that he died in 1976 a recluse, impoverished and almost forgotten?
A powerful orator, Robeson long had protested the social injustice and racism he experienced in his homeland. "He decided to become a political activist, and what he said was so uncomfortable that powerful people were threatened by him saying these dangerous things," Aluko says. "Then he became a socialist in 1928, when he met Welsh miners and discovered white people exploited other white people."
Aluko includes several of Robeson's political speeches in the play. Robeson was an active supporter of the Anti-Lynching Law in the 1940s and formed the Progressive Party. In 1949, Robeson was called to give testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, which Aluko dramatizes in his show. Blacklisted in the U.S., Robeson's passport was revoked for almost a decade, consequently canceling his international tours and cutting his annual income from $100,000 in 1949 to $6,000 in 1952.
And that's the story of how one of America's most accomplished black performers rose to the ultimate heights of achievement and died in near obscurity. With Call Mr. Robeson, Tayo Aluko seeks to change that.