Denied permission to leave the US, actor and singer Paul Robeson famously telephoned in a performance to a Canadian trade union convention in 1952, singing well-known hits down the cable including ‘Old Man River’ and informing delegates that he was being kept under “a sort of domestic house arrest”.
Robeson, whose communist views and civil rights activism made him a high-profile target of the McCarthyite red scare, is now the subject of a one-man show by Liverpool-based performer Tayo Aluko, Call Mr Robeson. Having toured the play for five years to widespread acclaim, Aluko is curating the Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival this October to coincide with Black History Month. The festival, which takes place at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre, will feature Aluko’s monodrama alongside a programme of performers including comedian Ava Vidal and speakers such as former Labour MP Tony Benn. When I Skype Aluko to find out more, he’s in Brighton – confined only by the continuing tour of Call Mr Robeson – and takes time out to consider the political potential of theatre, challenges facing the arts today, and why “collective action” is essential for realising what Robeson stood for: “equality between races, sharing of resources between workers and bosses, and peace between nations.”
For someone with such an extraordinary life and career, Robeson’s relatively unknown today. Why’s that? “He was too far ahead of his time for his own good,” Aluko suggests. “When the more modern civil rights movement came – people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – Robeson’s image had been tarnished by the media and the hysteria about what communism represented, which to Americans was violent revolution.” Labelled a fanatic, Aluko says, Robeson was “sidelined by people from all walks of life”, despite his popularity in films such as the musical Showboat and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.
In fact, Aluko himself hadn’t heard of Robeson until he was 33 – 18 years ago. “A woman heard me singing and said I reminded her of him, then by chance I stumbled across his biography and decided somebody had to tell this story.” Interweaving narrative with song (and judging by show’s trailer, matching Robeson’s impressively deep baritone), Aluko crafted the piece “almost like a sculptor or a jewel-maker, starting very rough and then refining and refining. Now in its current form, [it] seems to be being accepted as a rather beautiful but potent work of art.”
Theatre, Aluko believes, is “a very potent art form – because there’s a performer in front of you it has that added immediacy and intimacy. To use the title of the festival, it’s potentially a very strong weapon for informing and engaging people to learn more about the world.” But, he reflects, this could be in jeopardy. Several theatres that originally expressed interest in programming Call Mr Robeson “have lost their funding and closed down. Others have said they really cannot afford to do anything other than tribute shows to Abba or standup comedy or whatever, that don’t involve people thinking too much.”
Overall though, he’s cautiously optimistic about the arts under an austerity programme and entrenched neoliberalism. “There is definitely an effect of cuts happening, but they say in periods of cuts people become more creative. People are fighting to survive but they’re also fighting to keep things going, and when times get better hopefully there’ll be a flourishing of very good art.” Is theatre an effective weapon against the forces of austerity and privatisation that threaten it? “Yes,” he replies instantly. “Very much so. One of the plays in the festival is called WE WILL BE FREE!. The company [Townsend Productions] has been has been touring The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist for a few years very successfully, which is a theatrical explanation of socialism – workers informing themselves and learning how to resist the greed of the capitalist bosses. WE WILL BE FREE! is the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It’s a story from a few hundred years ago, but it will certainly inform people today about the importance of trade unionism and collective action.”
This is all music to my ears, but isn’t that the problem with a festival like this – preaching to the choir? “There is a danger of that, but it’s not just a case of preaching to the converted, it’s about re-galvanising people into carrying on the fight.” Aluko also hopes the broad range of performances, which include a new play about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, “might bring people who are not already engaged” with the “black history and/ or political issues that chime with what Paul Robeson was all about”.
Aluko isn’t hyperbolic about the power of art as an instigator of social change; rather, he stresses the importance of organising and solidarity. Citing Spain and Greece as inspirations, where “the austerity measures foisted on the people are being resisted by organised trade union action and the mass of the public are joining with them,” Aluko believes the future for the UK may not be so bleak. “Things may get worse under this coalition government – it may be that they need to for the public to decide to join these people fighting without our support for so long. The arts will certainly make a contribution – it’s not the answer, but whatever means there are at our disposal we use, and as artists our art is our weapon.”
As for Robeson, Aluko believes performers and audiences have much to learn from him, which he hopes the festival will convey. “Robeson teaches us we should not allow the people putting up resistance to the way things are to be vilified the way he was – Chelsea Manning is in jail for releasing information showing the US military has been committing war crimes; Edward Snowden is in exile because he released information the government wishes to remain secret.” Robeson’s story, as radical as these contemporary figures but “swept to the side and literally forgotten,” is certainly due its time in the spotlight. “History has been waiting to be rediscovered and retold,” Aluko says, “and it’s there to inspire us today”.
The Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 30 September to 26 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Tristan Bates Theatre’s website.