In my first year of University I took this amazing history course that combined American and Canadian history so we were able to see how and why the European settlers of both countries made such disparate choices that shaped the two distinct cultures each would come to embrace. One thing that struck me about the way that American history is constructed is that it is built on the concept of heroes, the idea of the definitive triumph of the victors on the right side of history, over the losers who were not. These binaries are distinct and it is always clear who and what was definitively right and who or what was definitively wrong. Canadian history is constructed entirely out of the complex, contradictions and vague middle ground between any two definitive opposites. We share this concept of history with Great Britain, much more eager to analyze ourselves critically, to examine our heroes and mine their flaws carefully, and to add a self deprecating touch of skepticism to anything that seems too readily admired or celebrated. Therefore, it is very interesting to see a play about an important figure of American history and popular culture told through the eyes of an artist from the United Kingdom to an audience of Canadians. That is exactly what happens in Call Mr. Robeson, which plays at the Bus Stop Theatre as part of the Atlantic Fringe Festival.
Paul Robeson is best known for playing Joe in the Original London Production, the Revival Broadway Production and the filmic adaptation of Show Boat, yet his intense and passionate advocacy for racial equality and Civil Rights has largely been forgotten by history. This is likely because Robeson’s experience does not fit neatly within the established binaries of American history, which makes it richly fascinating and also provides important insights into the larger global historical context to which the early years of the American Civil Rights Movement belonged. Robeson was a well traveled man who found great inspiration in the Socialist movements of The United Kingdom and Russia. As time passes Robeson finds himself an enemy of his own country when the Cold War Paranoia distorts his socialist ideals of freedom, empowerment and equality for the working class and people of all colors and ethnicities into Soviet loving Communism and he ends up before the Un-American Activities Committee.
As a play Tayo Alukop uses a lot of narration to tell the events of Robeson’s life, when the most captivating moments are the ones that he shows us dramatically. The most harrowing scene is one in which Alukop sings a beautiful rendition of Robeson’s signature “Ol’ Man River” at a protest with a helicopter circling around him, unsure whether it is there to protect him or to kill him. The play would benefit from being streamlined a bit, as there are moments when it lulls, but, regardless, I was ardently invested in Robeson’s journey and I appreciated that he was not presented as a definitive enemy or a hero, but allowed to be beautifully flawed as a human being. Alukop’s performance was rooted in dignity and in grace, which gave Robeson a sense of strength and rooted him also in his time and place in history. His baritone voice is rich and commanding and we see how Robeson used his singing as a political act, a defiance and a protest against racial inequality, which is a powerful and beautiful message.
There is a line in the play where Alukop says, “The artists must take sides” that still resonates so ardently for our society today. We need to keep looking to join those celebrities who are actively seeking to change the world for the better instead of allowing ourselves to be sidetracked by who is twerking on teevee.
Call Mr. Robeson plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) at the following times:
Sept 1, 7.00pm
Sept 2, 3.00pm
Sept 3, 8.00pm
Sept 4, 8.45pm
Tickets are $10.00 and are available in advance online at this website or 30 minutes before each show at the venue on the day of the performance. All tickets bought in person must be purchased with either cash or credit. For more information please visit this website or call 902.422.7604 between 10:00am and 5:00pm.