Call Mr Robeson is a one-man show telling the story of the life of Paul Robeson, singer, actor, and political activist. Written and performed by Tayo Aluko and directed by Olusola Oyeleye, it is an interesting exploration of the early civil rights movement in America, against a background of Hollywood films, theatre performances and concerts, with live performances of Robeson’s songs sung by Aluko, accompanied by Michael Conliffe on piano.
The piece opens with Aluko singing Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen while carrying a chair, which is used to symbolise the weight of the events of Robeson’s life on him. Aluko has a strong and operatic voice and performs the songs throughout the piece brilliantly, and often, particularly in the case of Old Man River, with dramatic flair and action which adds to the meaning of the music.
The show explores many deep themes and considers both sides of some divisive topics. The true meaning of equality is explored as Robeson argues with his wife, Essie, about language used and whether his behaviour shows a certain acceptance of the status quo. Other aspects of Robeson’s married life are investigated openly and honestly, and the contrasting emotions of guilt and regret, and love and acceptance are portrayed fantastically by Aluko, whose sensitive and candid writing brings out the complex emotions associated with Robeson’s numerous relationships. This is also reflected well is the account of Robeson’s fatherly pride towards his son, Paulie, and his regret over not being more present in his early life.
As often in one-man shows, Aluko portrays characters other than Robeson, though some characters are provided by voiceover, which adds an air of officialness to Robeson’s passport hearings and depth to his relationships in theatre. Aluko’s characterisation of other characters is good, with subtle changes in voice showing the change.
The set is busy, littered with various paraphernalia and several flags which point to Robeson’s political opinions and the countries he performed in. Several photographs which are referred to throughout the performance enhance the feeling of a man looking back on his life. Aluko’s physicality is excellent, with flashback scenes featuring particularly good physical performances which show movement and crowds, on an otherwise cluttered, but unpopulated, stage.
The impact of politics on Robeson’s life is handled delicately, as at first his left-wing leanings and work does not impact on his showbusiness career, despite his agent telling him involvement in politics will have catastrophic consequences. The effects of the unfairness of life in America at the time though quickly become apparent as Robeson performs in one venue where he is the star but is then refused entry to the restaurant due to racial segregation. His speeches about civil rights are then misquoted by the media who turn him into a figure of hatred and to all intents and purposes ruin his life.
The show creates an excellent combination of narration, reflection, and reaction, meaning that the story is told fully with a good range of emotions and awareness that could easily be lost by a performer less passionate about his subject. Aluko’s ability to show Robeson’s increasing desperation and the devastating impact on his mental health is fantastic and enhanced by Conliffe’s excellent, dramatic piano.
Call Mr Robeson is a brilliant biographical drama which adds life to the story of the early civil rights movement in America and uses the universal language of music to appeal to everyone. The show pays tribute from many people who contributed to the civil rights movement, from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King Jr and reminds us not to forget those who fought for the way of life we have today. Looping back to the start with Aluko limping off the stage under the weight of the heavy chair on his back, Call Mr Robeson is a call to all of us, to remember, to learn and to keep telling the stories of the people who dedicated their lives to equality.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 24th August 2023
North West End UK Rating: