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Paul Robeson

In his program notes to this production, director Michael R. Duran observes that if Paul Robeson had been a white man his name would be on the lips of every school child in the land. Indeed, Robeson's talents were of epic proportions: All-American football player and valedictorian of his class at Rutgers, Columbia Law School graduate; Broadway, West End, and Hollywood headliner; accomplished linguist; and world-renowned singer.

But being black was not the only strike against Robeson. He was also an impassioned social reformer who fought for human rights and against racism wherever he found it. It was for these outspoken views that he was brought before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), blackballed from working as a performer, deprived of his income, stripped of his passport, and, for a time, expunged from the historical record.

And though Robeson has been honored posthumously by the United Nations, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Grammy Awards, and, most recently, by the United States Postal Service with a commemorative stamp, the disservice done to him in his own country is still mostly absent any public accounting, and necessarily must be revisited if we are to learn anything from this remarkable man's life and the causes for which he fought.

Playwright Phillip Hayes Dean, a former Drama Desk Award-winner, has crafted a one-man biographical reminiscence, told from a first-person perspective, as if Robeson were on the stage of Carnegie Hall, at an actual event which honored him but from which his health had prevented him from attending. Coincidentally, Shadow Theatre's current production opened the night Ossie Davis died. Like Robeson, Mr. Davis championed civil rights while expanding the opportunities for African-Americans on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Photo of Russell Costen as Paul Robeson
Russell Costen as Paul Robeson
Photo: Jenny MacDonald
Amid red velvet curtains and plushly upholstered chairs, stage and film veteran Russell Costen recreates the life and times of Robeson. Though Costen does not physically resemble his subject's tall, muscular frame, he nevertheless comfortably inhabits Robeson's persona, as he takes us from a boyhood in New Jersey to the world stage.

Though occasionally pausing slightly to catch up with his voluminous material, Costen more than makes up for these brief moments with an impassioned immersion in Robeson's rich emotional, artistic, and political life.

We were deeply moved by Costen's Robeson throughout the performance, in particular: When he spoke of his love for his father and brothers (his mother died when he was very young); when he was responding to particularly offensive comments addressed to him, such as a British lord's support for European fascism; or, when he was describing deplorable situations, such as the racism and lynchings faced by black soldiers after they returned to the U.S. following their military service in both world wars.

Costen deftly handles other characterizations as well, as he plays out certain pivotal or especially heartwarming scenes in Robeson's personal and public life. We are also treated to a number of moving a cappella and accompanied renditions of Robeson's signature numbers, including "Old Man River," which the great singer made famous during his long London run in "Showboat." Costen holds his own with these, though he does not attempt to revisit Robeson's immortal basso profundo (who could?).

At a time when racism remains particularly insidious in American culture, and when the first amendment, which Paul Robeson so vigorously defended, is under fire from the very leaders who use freedom as a rallying cry to wage war, his life remains a courageous example and inspiration to all who take their rights seriously.

Shadow Theatre Company's production of Paul Robeson runs through March 5th. 303-837-9355.

 

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