Never Show Fear
We remember Paul Robeson for his haunting bass baritone, singing “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat, and also for his pro-Communist political stances, which got him blacklisted during the McCarthy era. James Earl Jones’ One Man Show, a 1979 theatrical production, underlines how Robeson’s art and politics were inextricably linked.
Now out on a bare-bones DVD, Paul Robeson - James Earl Jones One Man Show implies that the best way to understand Robeson is to “meet” him. Jones channels him in a two-hour, two-act play conceived as Robeson talking to the audience at an awards show. The occasion is Robeson being honored at Carnegie Hall at age 75, an event he did not attend, due to ill health and lingering bitterness over his treatment in the U.S. So we hear what Robeson might have been thinking as he watches his own enshrinement. He reviews his life experiences through stories, reenacted conversations, and songs.
That set-up is slightly awkward. For example, as the play opens, Jones sits, his back facing downstage as if he is an audience member, and then stands, turns, and begins his lengthy soliloquy. As he recounts his life from childhood to old age, Jones as Robeson is joined by Burt Wallace on piano for several musical numbers, so vibrant that they leave us wishing for more of these and fewer speeches.
Robeson achieved international fame in the 1930s and 1940s as an actor and singer, starring in Show Boat and a version of Othello that set a record for the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. But he achieved even more fame—or notoriety—as an activist, traveling the world to speak out against fascism, African colonialism, U.S. racism, and the Cold War. In material drawn from Robeson’s autobiography and letters, Jones encapsulates the icon’s beliefs in scientific socialism, peace, and a vision of racial unity.
The play vivifies Robeson’s politics. Jones reenacts a scene where Robeson appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and fights for his right of free speech even as McCarthy and his crew banned his concerts, took away his passport, and turned the press and “mainstream America” against him. Jones delivers a sense of Robeson’s pain at that ostracism, as well as his passion as he rejects others’ attempts to make him a symbol. He tells his wife to stop calling him a “hero” in her book about him. He responds with frustration when his parents’ friends want to call him a “child of destiny.” He cares more about others carrying on his social justice work after he is gone.
The play argues that his investment results from his own background. The son of a preacher and a teacher, he attends Rutgers on a football scholarship, the first black man to play for the team, confronting prejudice as he becomes an All-American sports star. He feels a recurring tension between one of his rebellious siblings, Reeves, and his father, who disagree over how best to respond to racism. While Reeves engages in militant rebellion (telling his brother, “Never show fear”), his father claims dignity through religion, starting an African Methodist Episcopal church (“Go with your head, not your heart”). The show implies that Robeson drew on both perspectives. Though this opposition sometimes comes across like a pat, pop-psychological account of Robeson’s attitude, it does give the play a point of view, which saves it from simply recounting biography.
We learn that racial discrimination drove Robeson into his performance career, which he thought of as a form of resistance. Jones enacts Robeson’s college singing experiences, as when the Rutgers Glee Club sing racist songs under Robeson’s window for hours to harass him until Robeson sings back, louder and better. They finally ask him to audition for their group, even though he lacked formal training aside from singing in his church choir. After Columbia University law school, Robeson takes on Wall Street, abandoning it his law firm won’t wouldn’t let him argue cases in court because of his race.
Just when the play is in danger of becoming too pedantic, it shifts into an account of Robeson and his wife, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, the first black pathologist chemist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Both were trendsetters in the Harlem Renaissance. Jones emphasizes the humor of their courtship as he delivers his side of their conversations, while we’re left to guess her side from context. He asks, “What? You’re telling me we are to be married? Why would I marry you?” and his next line is, “So then we were married.”
The second act turns more somber as it documents Robeson’s expatriate years. He performs in Show Boat in London, takes a harrowing 1934 trip through Nazi Germany, and then visits the Soviet Union, where he meets other international artists and sees a lack of racism in socialist societies. He travels to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to support anti-fascist efforts, makes political speeches at his concerts throughout Europe, and returns to the U.S. We run through a great deal of historical information here, and some of it blurs together. Still, the play successfully complicates a man who is usually reduced to icon. This is due in no small part to Jones’ powerful performance, bringing to life Robeson’s personal and political courage.