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Paul Robeson must’ve known something, ’cause his life and songs just keep rolling along

Call Mr. Robeson is the life and songs of Paul Robeson brought to the stage.
Playwright and performer Tayo Aluko shares his vision with Artslandia.
Written by Jasmine Proctor.

Paul Robeson was a performer and activist who carried and projected a message of equality, justice, and love. His charm and vision stood as a message against oppression and racism—a message that still is in dire need of being heard today.

At this tumultuous time in our world’s politics, Tayo Aluko is once again bringing Robeson’s story to life on stage and is sharing the message of unity through his performance piece, Call Mr. Robeson. After hearing about Robeson’s life in 1995, Aluko was taken by the ideas of love and compassion that Robeson strived for. “What I saw from his story when I first read it was how the basic idea of love for your fellow human being was at the forefront of his life,” a message that Aluko believes is continuously under threat. As such, Call Mr. Robeson is well-timed. These themes were not only at risk back when Aluko first began the play in 2007, but still continue to be today.

As a one-man show, Aluko says that the inspiration behind choosing this style was planted during a performance in California. Originally a 14-person play, Aluko claims that the idea behind reducing the cast size to a single actor came to him at a conference on art songs by African American composers in Irvine, where the actor presented the entire show to a patiently waiting audience. It was after this performance that Aluko came to believe the play could work with just one person and an accompanying pianist, which happens to change each city he visits. “That, as well as the different audiences, helps keep the play fresh and exciting.”

Aluko also tells of some initial challenges in constructing the play, especially in terms of choosing what to include and exclude from Robeson’s many accomplishments and a life that “was fuller than anybody else’s.” The way Aluko “constructed and thought about it was to tell [Robeson’s] life story, tell the political events that he was a partied to, and sing some of the songs he sang, and then find a way of weaving all of those together.” This was no easy task. Aluko notes that some of his own favourite songs and scenes needed to be cut, while some of his least favourites needed to be included. This was in order to be authentic to Robeson’s American patriotism. “Having that particular song there,” Aluko claims, “is an example of the tough choices one had to make.”

One of the songs that made the cut might have been Robeson’s most famous piece, Ol’ Man River. Aluko reveals that the performance of this song was initially structured as an ensemble piece. The actor is a baritone after all, while Robeson was famously a bass. As such, Aluko performs the song in a different key. He admits that over the years, he’s become very comfortable doing this, saying that it’s “one of the highlights of the play.”

While Robeson had performed Ol’ Man River on many occasions, Aluko places the work at a crucial point within the play. This spot is during the Peekskill outdoor concert amid protest from the locals—a poignant moment both in Robeson’s life as well as in the play—when the singer defied the racism and resistance present throughout the riots and decided to go forth with the concert despite outward objections. “He decided to go and sing this concert, knowing that it was dangerous. He said that he has every right to let people hear him sing and speak his words of peace, freedom, and brotherhood.” And this sentiment could not be more relevant than in our current political landscape. “Right now in the United States…we see that hatred of people…is dangerously on the rise again, and…that particular song, and all of Paul Robeson’s songs and his story, are definitely in need of being heard.”

The takeaway from this performance? Inspiration. While we may not all be able to achieve the feats that Robeson has in his long and meaningful career, Aluko believes that audiences can pocket the inspiration needed to continue spreading the values he believed in. “He championed…collective action by working people…but also getting together across whatever divides there are to fight the systems that keep people under oppression,” and Aluko hopes that audiences can feel inspired to carry on this collective action in order to fight for freedom, equality, and justice.

His three words to describe the play? “Entertainment, education, and inspiration,” the exact three words that Robeson would no doubt use to describe his own performances. In that way, Aluko is continuing the legacy of Robeson through the exact medium the activist projected his messages onto the world—performance that carries weight and significance. Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

Call Mr. Robeson is presented by Evergreen Cultural Centre and runs February 16-18. Tickets here.

Nigerian-born Tayo Aluko is based in Liverpool, UK, where he worked until early 2009 as an architect and property developer, with a special interest in eco-friendly construction. With his one-man play Call Mr. Robeson, he won the coveted Fringe Review Outstanding Theatre Award at the Brighton Festival Fringe in June 2016. The play has also been performed on a number of occasions in Nigeria and Jamaica, to great acclaim, and also at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 2012.