By Chad Nance
The Winston-Salem production of Paul Robeson, an essentially one-man show about the athlete, musician, actor, scholar, attorney, and political activist, features a stunning and powerful performance by Jason McKinney. Like Robeson’s own performance in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, McKinney owns the stage practically alone. Robeson is an acting/singing tour de force that is a triumph on a technical level while still revealing the deep currents of empathy, pride, and charisma that made Robeson, himself, a 20th Century icon.
McKinney hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in 2011 from UNC School of the Arts, where he studied voice with soprano Marilyn Taylor and tenor Glenn Siebert. While at UNCSA, he was the recipient of the Helen Odom scholarship, the Music Dean’s Talent Scholarship, and the Chancellor’s Grant for Excellence. His performance in Robeson reveals a towering talent who not only plays Robeson from his late teens into his 70’s convincingly, but also nails roles ranging from a German cafeteria worker at Rutgers, to a Russian Cossack, to a British Lord and his wife. In a particularly poignant moment (shortchanged by the writing) McKinney embodies the despairing soul of Charles Gilpin, whose own hard work and struggle paved the way for Paul Robeson’s success. As portrayed in the play, Eugene O’Neill replaced Gilpin with Robeson for the lead in the classic Emperor Jones after having seen the younger actor in an amateur performance. Gilpin was already having difficulties with both alcohol and the playwright, O’Neill, due to what Gilpin felt was an excessive use of the word “Nigger.” Following Robeson’s ascension to the role and the subsequent rise into global stardom, Gilpin descended into drink and despair, ending his life in a small town in New Jersey then being buried in an unmarked grave.
McKinney’s voice has the depth and character of Robeson’s own. The young baritone keeps a master’s control on his instrument while allowing depth and feeling to lead the technical prowess. McKinney does not simply “sing” the role or allow it to become rote imitation. The performer “acts” the musical numbers with the same care and craft that he handles the monologues. For someone who is familiar with Robeson’s recoded singing the effect is startling and immediate. The young man displays true performer’s courage at the play’s opening by allowing comparison with Robeson to be a direct challenge. The play begins in silence while the audience hears Paul Robeson himself in a recording he had made for his 75th birthday celebration that was held in 1973 at Carnegie Hall. Because of health problems Robeson had been unable to attend, but he did send a recording that included the now immortal lines, “Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.” Following those words Robeson sang a children’s song described as his father’s favorite.
McKinney joins Robeson during “This Little Light of Mine,” the effect of which is to place the audience into Robeson’s Philadelphia home in an immediate way as the brittle recording of an old man who finds himself fading in the late evening light gives way to McKinney’s young, powerful, and warm voice. The actor/singer pulls this move off with aplomb and then never looks back.
McKinney was joined onstage by musician and actor Christopher A. Bagley, who primarily played Robeson’s own musical life-partner, Lawrence “Larry” Brown. Bagley does not allow the role to be a thankless accompaniment in any way. He brings a humor and humanity to Brown and his singing with and without McKinney has an authenticity that does not come across as a clumsy, 21st Century attempt to approximate the musical styling in early 20th Century America. Bagley stands out on his own in a wonderfully staged scene that recreates moments from the House Un-American Activities Commission. It is Bagley who does the heavy lifting in this scene with true menace- embodying the scumbag politicians that led the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950’s.
If there is a flaw with Robeson it is in the text of the play. While playwright Phillip Hayes Dean presents an engaging portrait of the man with empathy and thoughtfulness, he too often presents Robeson in a didactic, iconic way that stifles Robeson’s own complexities and humanity. Dean also fails to truly illuminate the impact Robeson’s wife, Eslanda “Essie” Goode Robeson, had on the world beyond simply being Roberson’s “mate.” While there are beautiful passages in the play which include Eslanda, she is portrayed more as a bystander or companion to Robeson’s career rather than the integral and driving force that she truly was. She was also a noted anthropologist and writer who, apart from Robeson, fought and suffered for her beliefs. Eslanda also suffered at the often careless hands of her famous husband. He could be personally weak, lazy, and petulant, forcing Essie to become the rigid backbone of the family. Along with financially supporting the couple in the early days of their marriage, Eslanda was repeatedly emotionally savaged by Robeson’s infidelity including multiple affairs and a near marriage to British actress Dme. Peggy Ashcroft. The only reason Robeson did not marry the legendary actress was because his manager warned him that it would destroy his career. These omissions turn the complex and epic Robeson marriage (which included outright separations on several occasions) into little more than some romantic platitudes and scenes of Paul “being the man” while protecting Essie physically from Nazis and other assorted racists.
The playwright also omits the fact that Robeson came from real poverty, rather than the middle class home of a successful African American minister as portrayed in the play. While Roberson’s adolescence was bolstered by the bourgeois privilege afforded by his father’s position as a respected minister, the play does not address the fact that the Robeson family had become almost destitute when his father lost his first pastor’s position and had to take manual labor work while the family lived in poverty in a small walk-up over a store. The text also changes a major part of Robeson’s life by leaving out the fact that he commuted to and from Rutgers University to be a caregiver for his dying father. In the play Robeson is portrayed more as a son who is working hard away at school while his brother cares for the ailing and dignified elder Robeson.
Robeson himself is short-changed at times. The legend’s time at Columbia Law School is the most damaged by the dramatist’s need to streamline the story. While at law school Robeson was also playing NFL football and already performing in theatre productions including a singing appearance off-Broadway. Leaving out the flurry of activity during this time in Robeson’s life also leads to another major bit of license. The playwright changed the narrative of Robeson’s life in a way that made the man look like an accidental performer rather than the seasoned actor and singer he truly was before being spotted by O’Neill.
Dean also softens the edges of Robeson’s real political life. Rather than simply “speaking” against British colonialism during his time in the UK, Robeson actively worked against the interest of the British Empire, going so far as to host future Prime Minister of post-Raj India, Jawaharlal Nehru in his home. While the HUAC hearing scenes are stirring, the playwright stacks the deck by not truly revealing Robeson’s connections to the Soviet Union, including his support and friendships with Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. Robeson did act as a propagandist for the Soviet Union back home in America. It is clear from Robeson’s statements and his own writings that Robeson’s Soviet apologetics were an attempt to mitigate the harshness of cold war Anti-Soviet propaganda which he (and his friend Albert Einstein) felt would lead to nuclear war. In retrospect, however, Robeson’s actions (as they relate to the USSR, not to socialism or communism themselves) were ethically and morally questionable. Worrying that Robeson would turn on them, Stalin’s regime even had the man visit Moscow in order to meet with Robeson’s friend, the poet Itzik Feffer. Robeson had been trying to contact Feffer after the poet was arrested on trumped up charges by Stalin. At their meeting in Moscow, Feffer told his friend that a mutual acquaintance , Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, had been murdered by Stalin and that he was next. According to some accounts Feffer told Roberson, “They’re goin to kill us. When you return to America you must speak out and save us.” Robeson never spoke out against Stalin and continued a close relationship with Soviet leaders.
Robeson’s work in America with labor unions is given the best attention by Dean’s play. McKinney’s passion for Robeson comes through strong and clear in these moments. It is in his pro-labor advocate role that Robeson came here to Winston-Salem. Robeson’s father was born a slave on the Robeson plantation which was close to Cross Road Township near modern day Raleigh. At the age of 15 the senior Robeson escaped from slavery and made his way to Philadelphia. Returning to North Carolina was something Paul would do throughout his life in the full awareness of his family’s history here.
In 1947, Paul Robeson came to Winston-Salem in support of the Local 22 Union- African Americans who were fighting RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. for fair wages and labor conditions. Robeson appeared on the grounds of the old Woodland Ave. school near 7th and Cleveland today. There, between two large oak trees, Robeson said, “If fighting for the Negro people and their trade union brothers, if fighting for democracy and the welfare of my people, if that makes me a subversive that they’re talking about in congress, if that makes me a ‘red’ then so be it.”
According to the book Civil Rights Unionism, a witness to Paul Robeson’s Camel City appearance stated, “As Robeson held the incredibly low final note of ‘Water Boy’ like a pedal point on a great organ, a Negro worker next to me stood open-mouthed and unbreathing until the sound died away; then he slapped his knee in ecstasy, shouting out, ‘Gah-ahd damn!’ while tears coursed down his face.”
Even with these omissions and dramatist’s slight of hand, Robeson is a triumph and unique theater going experience. An argument could be made that, even with omissions, the play is a distillation of Paul Robeson as an icon, read like the gilded memories of an old man. The play (and in a real way this review) are evidence that Robeson’s life and work continue to challenge conventions in a way that require his personal impact to be softened in order to be digested by 21st Century Americans that live in a Gilded Age with a great many similarities to the inequalities of Robeson’s youth. We live with the same inequities, purges, violence, and rising totalitarianism of Paul Robeson’s time, so the story of this transformative and consequential icon remains relevant and powerful.