By ALAN SMASON, Special to Theatrecriticism.com
For the past two decades, Stogie Kenyatta has researched, performed and perfected his one-man show The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson on stages across the globe.
With a running time of nearly three hours including a 15-minute intermission, the two-act vehicle permits Kenyatta to perform as Robeson throughout the various stages of his well-documented life. As few members of his craft can do, he also seamlessly transforms himself into a number of ancillary characters such as that of his father, William Drew Robeson, a man who was rescued from the evil grip of slavery by no less than Harriet Tubman herself.
He first depicts the elder Robeson when only 15 years old, running scared from the North Carolina plantation that provided him with his surname. Seeking freedom in the North, he and another escaped slave hide under the protective cover of darkness as Tubman eventually approaches. Soon, he is channeling the no-nonsense Tubman. She threatens the riders on her Underground Railroad who wish to return to the safety of their masters to be resolute with her on their journey lest they face retribution from the barrel of her rifle.
The heinous institution of slavery and the quest for freedom is central to the core of the life of Paul Robeson. Born the youngest son of an emancipated slave in 1898, Robeson endured unseen chains and bonds which he broke through with nearly every act and intention he made in life. Even the epitaph on his gravestone alludes to his struggle: “The artist must elect for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
When we first encounter Robeson in the play, Kenyatta assumes the temperament of the gullible and giddy five-year-old “Pauley” Robeson. We learn of his relatively late arrival to a family of three older brothers – William Drew, Jr., Reeve and Ben – and one older sister, Marian, and that he suffers an unspeakable loss just before his sixth birthday. Having been forced to take on menial jobs, their father is a stern and authoritarian “preacher man,” who gives no quarter when it comes to insisting that his progeny excel in life. “I am neither feeding nor clothing any janitor in this house,” the old man pronounces.
Kenyatta’s voice deepens and his posture becomes more assured as we witness him mature into an outstanding student. As the actor emphasizes, the prevailing opinion was that Negroes were inferior and incapable of achieving intellectual prowess. Robeson, the winner of an academic scholarship to Rutgers University, was only the third African-American in the nation to win an academic scholarship to any college..
As he explains to the audience, the admissions office is astonished to find out that he is, indeed, the very same Paul Robeson, to whom they had offered a scholastic opportunity. Because of that, he must, reluctantly, turn down that very nice janitorial position in favor of attending class, he says while smiling broadly.
He tries out for the varsity football team, but being the only Black athlete on the field, he is subjected to an impromptu physical assault at the hands of the other team members. Hurting both in body and spirit, he leaves the field, but after the coaxing of his father, who reminds him of his responsibility as the first of his race, he returns to the gridiron ten days later. With bravado and braun, he challenges the other team members, tears through the line and raises the quarterback (represented by a chair) high above his head.
Kenyatta uses his outside voice to portray the football coach at Rutgers. “Robeson! You’ve made the team!” he shouts. “Now. Put. My Quarterback. Down!” Robeson becomes an invaluable member of the squad and, eventually, is recognized as an All-American walk-on football star.
“My daddy ran to freedom at 15,” Robeson bellows. “The least I could do is run to the end zone.”
In addition to celebrity status on the field, he also achieves academic stardom after being selected to membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society and the Alpha Phi Omega national service fraternity with a 4.0 grade point average. He delivers his valedictorian speech in the formal attire befitting such an event, advocating that his fellow classmates should speak out and correct injustice wherever they find it.
As Kenyatta informs us, he takes the Law School Admission Test, enters Columbia Law School, graduates and passes the bar examination on his first try. (What he fails to add is that he did all of that while playing professional football for two different NFL teams at that time.)
The ease with which Kenyatta voices Robeson and the others, while constantly changing costumes or manipulating his wear on stage is remarkable. A classically-trained artist born in Jamaica, he has distilled together all of his talent, instruction and experience into a work imbued with a reverence towards the towering figure that was Paul Robeson.
After being taken to a hospital with a football injury – a separated shoulder – Robeson is thunderstruck by the sight of a “nurse” he espies from across the room. His doctor informs him that she is not a nurse, but a chemist and it is then that we learn of his introduction to Eslanda Goode, affectionately called “Essie.”
Eslanda Robeson became a pivotal influence on the man who would eventually become her husband. She was, like her husband, an independent spirit who was an intellectual in her own right, eventually becoming a doctorate holder in anthropology. Her most profound influence on Robeson was in jumpstarting his acting and singing career and her stint as both his manager and promoter.
It was as a bass-baritone singer that Robeson achieved his greatest success. Kenyatta uses Robeson’s actual voice in the background for when he speaks about his taking on the role of Joe in Showboat on the West End stage in London, a role he later reprised in the 1936 film that starred Irene Dunn and Allan Jones.
In Act I, we learn of Robeson’s gift of compassion for his fellow man, his love of family and the beginning of his success as a singer. We also learn of his love for the Harlem Renaissance, at which he and his wife were at the epicenter. He hobnobs with famous performers like Cab Calloway. Like Robeson, Calloway also became a lawyer. Both were frustrated due to the prejudice that forbade them to be able to argue cases in court.
As Robeson, Kenyatta complains about Calloway’s scat singing, but emulates the call and response of Calloway’s “Hi Di Ho Man” inviting audience members to participate.
In Act II, we are exposed to the height of his success playing sold-out concerts across Europe and throughout the United States, establishing record gates.
We are also witness to the Robesons’ activism and higher purpose against Jim Crow laws in America and colonialism in Africa. “It is the mission of the artist to save the soul of humanity,” he professes.
We also learn of the cracks in their marriage, especially of Paul’s infidelities with his women co-stars, among them Uta Hagen, Peggy Ashcroft and Fredricka “Fredi” Washington, whose most famous film role he references when he suggests not to have loved her, “would have been an ‘Imitation of Life.'”
Ashcroft famously played opposite him as Desdemona in his greatest stage triumph in Othello. But the dalliances caused at least one separation as Kenyatta relates the schism in their relationship later in the play. It is somewhat apparent, though, that the couple’s difficulties with McCarthyism sprang from their attachment to the Soviet Union.
He deeply admired dictator Josef Stalin and accepted the International Stalin Prize in absentia during the period in which their passports were revoked. It was probably their lowest ebb, a disaster for them financially and emotionally. But they continued to speak out wherever they saw injustice, especially in the nascent civil rights movement. “I didn’t just have an opinion,” he states emphatically. “I had a voice.” He was an energetic early ally of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Harry Belafonte to name just three.
His dedication to the independence of colonial Africa also is alluded to along with his attachment to major political leaders in Africa such as Jomo Kenyatta and in the actor’s native Jamaica with Marcus Garvey.
The longest thread running throughout the piece and that which most embodies the essence of what Paul Robeson stood for was his zealous attachment to the brotherhood of man and his clarion call against injustice and oppression.
Kenyatta’s portrayal is kind, smoothing over many of the rough edges in Robeson’s life such as his bouts with depression and drinking. There is an occasional tendency for him to repeat some of his lines, which seems to be less for emphasis than in order to spark his memory. This only slightly mars what is an otherwise most impressive and impactful performance.
The actor-writer uses humor to connect to his audience and elicit gales of laughter. Then, deftly, he brings out incidents of racial injustice and acts of inhumanity that register gasps by audience members.
But for this haunting portrayal by a very talented writer and star, there would be no other vehicles to remind us in the present day of the previous and powerful impact of Paul Robeson. Nor would we learn of his historical connection to that of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. To learn that story, check out the online on demand stream.
Written and directed by Stogie Kenyatta, The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson, was first seen on January 23, the 45th anniversary of the death of its subject. The show was recorded and will be shown on-demand for Black History Month for free. Got to JPAS.org for more information.