Tayo Aluko and Friends at the Tristan Bates Theatre, the Actors Centre
Paul Robeson loved London. He first played Othello at the Savoy in 1930 [then something of a novelty – 35 years later Olivier was still blacking up for the Moor].
Now, fresh from the Labour Party Conference fringe in Brighton, he's back in the heart of theatreland, in a compelling monodrama written and performed by Tayo Aluko, as part of an extensive UK tour.
"Call Mr Robeson; A Life with Songs" begins with 78rpm crackle as Aluko makes his imposing entrance, singing Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen. It ends with more crackle, this time for Goin' Home as the ageing Robeson leaves us with a quotation from the Shakespeare – "Speak of me as I am …"
The emphasis is very much on Robeson the man – a fighter, a socialist, fiercely proud of his African roots, his preacher father born in slavery. No false modesty about his successes, either, academic, sporting, and artistic.
Aluko is no Willard White, but has a pleasant baritone voice, which makes a powerful impact in this intimate space. He is a genial host, charmingly explaining away his "very good friends", honest about the women he loved. But the narrative is tellingly punctuated by moments of raw, uncontrollable emotion: the death of his mother in a fire when he was just six years old, his brutal initiation into the racist world of college football.
Phil Newman's ingenious setting reflects the diversity of the singer's influences and experiences. In the middle of the floor, a huge label from the original disc of Goin' Home. And all around, little piles of memorabilia – framed photographs, books, letters – each grouped round a flag.
It's good to be reminded of his lifelong love of Soviet Russia, his views on the Spanish Civil War, his happiest days staying in Wales as a guest of the miners. And of his radical, outspoken attacks on the injustices in US society.
We relive some of his key speeches – he was a noted orator at Rutgers – in the Royal Albert Hall, in Kansas, and before the notorious Un-American Activities Committee. In one of the most dramatic moments, he sings Ol' Man River [written especially for him] to a union rally as rioters surround the grounds and a police helicopter circles deafeningly overhead.
This kind of unrelenting pressure, and nine years house arrest, fuel Robeson's paranoia, leading to a suicide attempt in a Moscow bathroom, which is movingly but unsensationally staged. As an old man, he begins to realise that his work, and his struggle, are increasingly marginalised, his name all but forgotten.
It is this neglect, of the civil rights legacy as well as the artistic achievement, which this unique theatre piece seeks to address.
Call Mr Robeson is directed by Olusola Oyeleye, with Michael Conliffe at the piano deputising for Paul's longtime collaborator Lawrence [Larry] Brown.