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Call Mr. Robeson: A life, with songs

A conversation with writer and actor Tayo Aluko

by Scott BarberRana Encol

Tayo Aluko heard of the Atlantic Fringe Festival while touring the west coast. (photo: Rana Encol)
Tayo Aluko heard of the Atlantic Fringe Festival while touring the west coast. (photo: Rana Encol)

An autobiography of Frederick Douglass, tomes in African History, and McCarthy-era newsprint playbills are scattered across a black box theatre space in North End Halifax. Paul Robeson hobbles on stage with a chair slung across his back, belting out his signature “Ol' Man River.”

Then, in sotto voce: “Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Glory Hallelujah.

Tayo Aluko, an English actor from Nigeria by way of Liverpool, bears a stunning resemblance to the baritone singer when in costume on stage – 6'4'' and two hundred pounds of dark devastation, by his own description.

Robeson suffered the blame for the Peekskill Riots in Harlem, testified in front of the House Un-American Affairs Committee, and spent nine years under house arrest – all because of his unwavering political commitment to trade unionism, civil rights, and anti-imperialist causes.

Ayodea Junaid, an ESL intepreter who attended the show, was pleased to learn Robeson was also an avid linguist. “I enjoyed (the show) because it's a rare opportunity to actually get a sense of who Paul Robeson was versus the propaganda,” she said. "There's a lot of misconception."

Everywhere Robeson went his concerts were packed, and it was no different Wednesday as the 70-seat Bus Stop theatre was filled to capacity on the final night of the one-man autobiographical play.

The Media Co-op caught up with the actor and writer after the show.

* * *

How did you connect with Paul Simons, the piano player (accompaniment)? He's a local artist.

When I'm touring I go online and look for piano players. I particularly look for people with a combination of talents ... I tend to start by looking at jazz pianists, because there are one or two places in the play where some improvisation is needed. Not jazz necessarily, but more in the gospel field. There's a scene in the church, which is supposed to be like the organist playing in the background with the preacher doing his thing, so I looked online and Paul just stood out.

You mentioned the church and organ music, is that where Robeson came up?

His father was a minister at a church in Princeton, New Jersey. They were part of the A. M. E. Zion, African Methodist Episcopal church. Paul grew up in that church and I think he always remained a member. It is said he remained quite religious throughout his life. That's probably true. I remember people telling me they saw him in a garden party in London, England, and him being very deep in conversation with somebody called the Red Bishop about spiritual things. But also ... he was a bishop with social justice concerns, so that was quite a good fit for two of them.

Which the black church has always had, and has been developed in other places as well.

I heard Paul Robeson in a radio interview saying something that black churches, black people, they need to do a lot more than just pray. I share this concern, and that is a lot of the time, religious people – black or otherwise, but particularly in black churches worldwide, including Nigeria where I come from – seem to put a lot more faith on their religion than on personal and group action for social justice. There's another piece that I do that's not a play but more like a lecture with songs – there's a speech of Malcolm X's that I do, saying that white man has taught us to sing and pray and shout until we die, while that white man has his milk and honey on the streets here on earth. We're supposed to wait until after we die for our milk and honey, which is not enough. People buy that too often.

How did you prepare for this role? You wrote the play yourself, I imagine, did you do some compositions as well?

All the songs are songs that he sang. Or in the case of only one piece of music in the play, he didn't sing, but that was “We'll keep our welcome in the hillsides, we'll keep our welcome in the dales ... This land will ... when you come home again to Wales.” It is a Welsh hymn, which was playing in the background while I was speaking at the American-Canadian border, and he was describing how people in Wales wanted to come back and sing to them, but he couldn't because his passport was impounded.

But all the other songs that I sing and play, are songs that he sang. Including one that I don't like, personally, and that's the "Ballad for Americans", because it's overly patriotic without there being much substance to it. But, musically it's okay. My director (Olusola Oyeleye), who was also the dramaturge, who helped me write the play, insisted that I sang it, and she was right.

Did you encounter Robeson first at home in Nigeria, or in England?

In England, in Liverpool, on June 23rd, 1995, at about 6:30 in the morning. Because that was a summer solstice, there was an event to welcome the dawn, I had been asked to sing. I chose to sing what I thought was an appropriate song, “My Lord What a Morning”. And this lady came up to me afterwards and said, 'you remind me of Paul Robeson, do you sing many of his songs?' And I think that might have been the first time I heard his name. Just by sheer chance and good luck, two months after that I was in a library in Liverpool looking for a book on civil rights or something, and there was this book, Paul Robeson the biography, and I thought, there's that guy that woman was talking about.

And you found out he was more than a singer.

Exactly.

The play is about that – why is it that Robeson got pushed aside? It's not just that he was called a communist, is it?

Not just that he was called a communist, but he spoke to many uncomfortable truths, I think. And he was pushed aside, even by, as I say in my blurb, the synopsis, even by the leaders and followers of the modern civil rights movement. He was associated with communism and that was seen as unpatriotic. The black civil rights leaders at the time, they felt that if they were to get what they wanted, they had to show they were true patriotic, loyal Americans, and being associated with someone like Robeson was not going to help their cause.

As far as the white establishment was concerned, basically he was just speaking too many truths. And more importantly showing, almost singularly, that he was one man – even though he was black, he recognized the black struggle could not be won by blacks alone, and that the working class struggle – whites as well – had to have as many allies as possible both in America and worldwide. So being an internationalist was particularly dangerous. That's why he was sidelined, silenced.

You and Isaac Saney (of Dalhousie University), when we first met, mentioned the possibility of giving a talk at the university ... because I was going to ask you what the reaction of the students was.

I can tell you what the reaction of the students were in a similar occasion. This was in Charlotte, North Carolina about two, three years ago. I started by saying “Has anybody heard of Paul Robeson? And this was, at least half of them were black students. Not one of them had, which didn't surprise me.

I remember being in Dearborn, Michigan, where there was some kind of national labour event. I did a presentation. Afterwards, I went to this group of trade unionists, there were four or five, and they were black and maybe my age, and I said, sorry you missed something I did about Paul Robeson. (And they said,) "Who's Paul Robeson?" Black, middle-aged men in the labour union didn't know about Paul Robeson. That is the success with which he has been buried. 

...

I'm as guilty as anybody else in my ignorance. I just thought, this is bad. Not only should I be ashamed of myself, but I've got to do something about it, so I was inspired by his life to just tell his story.

So his signature song is "Ol' Man River". The very first word that comes out of my mouth when I start officially, is I sing the opening of "Ol' Man River" with the original lyrics, which started with the n-word, which he sang in 1928. Because that was the very beginning of his career, and maybe that word was not so easy to challenge in those days. So I start the play with that, and then stop it after two or three lines.

I've invented the suggestion that his wife tells him off for singing those words. I do that to tell the story that even great a man as Paul Robeson became, he also started from a position of relative naivete and innocence and ignorance, ... but he grew in stature and intellect to become a great man. Ignorance is no excuse. Once you've been given information the question is what you do with it... for yourself or for society. That's what's he did. That's what I like to think I do with the play. Because I feel just by telling Paul Robeson's story there's so much education in there, in all sorts of things, from African History to even pre-slavery African history to Welsh history, to socialism, to war with the Soviet Union.

Then at the very end I deliberately bring in the fact that after this epic life has been lived, then we now start to hear about these young fellows, called Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And I also mention Nelson Mandela at the end of Paul Robeson's life after he has achieved all this. By saying, well, he went before, and other people went before him, and he acknowledged them, but not enough of the current and recent heroes acknowledged him. I don't think his name has ever escaped the lips of Barack Obama, in public anyway.

Where else are you taking this play in the future?

I go back to England tomorrow night, all my future performances that are confirmed are in the UK until January of next year ... that includes a full-week run in a small theatre – even smaller than this – but it's in the west end, and I've built up a festival around it, and I call it the "Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival", and I've got a series a series of speakers and other performers to occupy this place for the month of October.

That's my most ambitious thing to date.

What did you think of the space here at the Bus Stop Theatre? It's a very small, intimate space.

It's a very intimate space, it's very nice actually. I have a lot of praise for Matt, the technician. He was very good.  It's actually better than what I was expecting from a so-called Fringe venue.

 

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

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