Call Mr Robeson

The American singer and civil rights campaigner is remembered at the Island Arts Centre

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898. His father had escaped slavery and his mother died when he was six years old. Robeson went on to learn 24 languages, become a law graduate, a gifted sportsman, actor, singer and political activist. He did all of this as a black man - a second-class citizen - in a country that was deeply segregated.

Born in Nigeria, but now living in England, actor and singer Tayo Aluko faithfully re-examines Robeson's life and influence in this much-travelled one-man show. It is, according to Aluko, the little known story of one the greatest singers and civil rights campaigners to have emerged from America.

The well-paced script captures Robeson's eventful life in 90 minutes and is delivered authoritatively by the competent Aluko. Phil Redman's set for this production is simple but effective. Using a variety of mementos strewn around the stage - old photos, books, records and reviews - he allows Aluko to be the centre of attention.

Aluko's singing voice is remarkably similar to Robeson's - deep and resonant. Although he is a baritone, rather than a bass-baritone, he delivers powerful performances of songs like 'Ol' Man River' and 'The Battle of Jericho', accompanied throughout by the sensitive piano of Michael Conliffe.

Robeson’s politics were not only deeply immersed in the cause of the black man, but also with the plight of the working-classes around the world. He made strong links with unions in England. He made friends with Welsh miners and spoke out against the fascists during the Spanish civil war. He idealised the Soviet Union, where he sent his son to study.

This politics, however, led to him being pinpointed by the McCarthy administration and the tiny minds of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), who dragged Robeson to the Supreme Court to testify in an anti-Communist hearing.

Yet, in spite of the immense pressure put upon him, he never gave up his friends nor denied his beliefs. Robeson was made to pay a hefty price for this defiance, and was subsequently blacklisted by the Hollywood film studios and the American record companies. His passport was revoked from 1950-58, and in the end he even attempted suicide. He died at 70 years of age.

Interestingly, in the question and answer session that follows the show, several audience members recall having seen Robeson perform in the Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1935. Tickets for this show sold out in record time. Subsequently, Robeson said of the Irish people: 'I have been made to feel that your people understand me, and the warmth of your welcome has gone to my heart.' 

Aluko's affection for the singer and social campaigner is evident throughout this stirring production at the Island Arts Centre. 'He is a hero to be inspired by,' declares Aluko. 'There are too many heroes whose stories are buried.'