Call Mr Robeson at Tristan Bates
Here in the intimate Tristan Bates Theatre on the day Nigeria gained independence, and marking the first day of Black History Month, Tayo Aluko is the legendary actor, singer and Civil Rights activist, Paul Robeson.
The audience bustle to their seats as pianist Michael Conliffe plays until the lights go down, and suddenly we are greeted with the powerful and majestic bass voice of Aluko, entering the stage singing Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. The colourful set includes the communist flag, American, Welsh, Spanish and British flags, photographs of family and friends and Robeson’s Goin’ Home on vinyl record. The stage effectively contains in itself the entire story that’s about to unfurl.
Having written the story himself (originally with more characters), Aluko portrays Robeson perfectly and possesses a strong stage presence that captivates the audience as soon as he steps out. He recalls the remarkable life story in a dramatic monologue under the spotlight: college, lovers, fame, racism, communism, the Civil Rights Movement.
Falling dramatically to the floor, he shows us how as a youth he was bedridden for ten days after being assaulted by American footballers, just because he was “coloured”. He shares further incidents with us regarding racial prejudice and the struggles he encounters: sending his son to a Russian school to prevent him from being a second-class citizen in America, a white woman’s father forbidding her marriage “to a negro,” and Robeson’s performance to 30,000 people at the hotel restaurant in which he was denied the right to eat, because “the guests wouldn’t approve”. The stories are hard-hitting and shocking, but the enchanting Aluko nonetheless has the audience chuckling, slipping up and mentioning endless women’s names (Frieda, Clare, Peggy, Ebony…) he claims were “close friends”.
Aluko’s singing voice is moving and impressive, delivering Ol’ Man River, Steal Away to Jesus, Battle of Jericho and the heart-warming Joe Hill Ain’t Dead with power and conviction, and leaving the audience touched and teary-eyed. And though there is no set change, Aluko transports us away with him and lets imagination take over; his convincing, enthralling performance is all we need, with sound effects to enhance the experience.
As the director says, this is a moving and succinct performance of Paul Robeson’s life that keeps his spirit alive. Aluko comments that if Robeson were alive today, he would probably be disappointed at the lack of activists – what are Beyoncé and Jay Z doing to fight against the continuing struggle? All in all, this is an outstanding show that captures the heart and soul of a man we should all take a lesson from.
Photo: Sarah Franklin
Call Mr Robeson is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October 2013, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch a trailer for Call Mr Robeson here: