Saturday 14 February 2015

Ol’ Man River: A Song, a Drama and a Life

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large, February 14 and is reproduced here because I wrote extensively about fellow-travellers in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but only briefly alluded to Paul Robeson. In the context of reviewing a one-man show about him, I now have the opportunity of writing about him in greater depth.

"Nations go to war, but it’s always our culture that unites us.” – Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson.
Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson. (Photo by Lexi Lewis)Add caption

Rarely do a song’s lyrics reflect the life of its singer, particularly one whose life is largely unknown today. Yet the African American, Paul Robeson, was possibly the most gifted artista polymath who could speak and sing in fourteen languagesand one of the most courageous activists of the twentieth century. Although he had appeared at the Cotton Club as a singer in Harlem in the early 1920s, Robeson’s career as an artist was inaugurated in 1928 when he performed the part of Joe in the London production of Show Boat (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), which had been a huge hit in New York. The musical chronicles the lives of people working on a Mississippi River showboat, and its black characters reflected the era’s stereotypes. Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” that was specifically written for him, was its most memorable number, no doubt enhanced by his rich baritone voice and large physical presence, and became one of his trademark songs whose lyrics evolved throughout his career. In the 2006 Criterion tribute to Robeson, Sydney Poitier narrates with illustrative visual clips how the words changed as Robeson and the world changed. Beginning with “Niggers all work on the Mississippi,” he altered the word “niggers” to “darkies” within a few years And when he made the film version in 1936, he transformed the opening line entirely to “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi; that’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.” He also eventually changed the defeatist line “I’m tired of livin’ and feared of dyin’” to the more political “We must keep fightin’ until we’re dying” that he first sang in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, a day that the war stopped so that both sides could hear the man sing. This last lyrical alteration signified his shift from subservience to militancy, and his capacity for seamlessly weaving his artistry with his politics. That trend accelerated after the Second World War in a concert in Warsaw: “The Mississippi was no longer the man I want to be.” From being the most famous black man in the world triumphing artistically and commercially in theatre, film and on the concert stageand an icon to Welsh miners, anti-lynching marchers in the American south, and anti-fascists everywherehe became one of the most reviled activists in his native country after the Second World War for his outspoken support for the Soviet Union and his scathing criticism of the United States.

To explain that trajectory, it is essential to unearth his personal life from its beginnings. That is the challenge that actor, stand-up comic and screenplay writer, Stogie Kenyatta, embarks upon in his ambitious drama, which he also wrote, The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson. An NAACP award-winning solo show is now in its fourteenth year, and Kenyatta’s three-hour performance with intermissionwhich I attended in Santa Monicais riveting. I have not entirely been engaged by one-person shows in the past, yet Kenyatta convincingly plays multiple roles with energy which are by turns powerful, funny and poignant. Shrewdly, he takes slavery as its framing device. The World opens with Kenyatta playing Robeson’s father when he was a runaway slave aided by Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. It ends with an ill and debilitated Robeson sailing across the Atlantic on his last transoceanic cruise, imagining that the souls of drowned slaves are reaching out to him as a conduit for their suffering. I say shrewdly because without understanding how slavery and its successor, the Jim Crow era that legalized segregation and condoned lynching, were embedded in his psyche, audiences will have difficulty empathizing with an activist who appeared at times to repudiate his country and embrace what he regarded as a positive socialist experiment in the Soviet Union.