By Darlene Donloe
Paul Robeson was a bigger than life figure who was fearless when it came to carrying the mantle for civil rights.
One of the truly Renaissance men of his day, the life of Robeson, who was an actor, an All-American athlete and a lawyer, is actually the stuff of legends. So much so - that playwright Phillip Hayes Dean wrote a one-man play about him that chronicles his life.
Ebony Repertory Theatre's production of Phillip Hayes Dean's Paul Robeson, starring two-time Emmy Award-winner Keith David in the title role, resumes its run at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Theatre on Fri., March 21, at 8 p.m. The original opening, which was March 14, was postponed after David injured his knee.
“Everyone at Ebony Repertory Theatre is pleased to announce that Mr. David is firmly on his road to recovery,” said Ebony Repertory Theatre Founder/Producer Wren T. Brown. “We are thankful to our loyal patrons for their outpouring of concern and support after we made the announcement about the cancellation of the Paul Robeson opening weekend performances due to Mr. David’s injury. In keeping with his tradition of being the consummate professional, Mr. Davis has arranged his schedule to give our theatre and patrons three make-up performances. We are grateful to Mr. David and our patrons for their thoughtful consideration at this time.”
In this production, Keith David is accompanied by pianist/musical director Byron J. Smith.
Dean, a Chicago native who also grew up in Pontiac, Mich., is making his Los Angeles directorial debut, takes us from Robeson’s childhood in New Jersey to his adult life around the world. The Drama Desk-winner for The Sty of the Blind Pig, Dean, 83, writes how Robeson faced racism in the early part of the 20th century and how his determination and triumph in rising above it all, made him a modern day hero.
Dean's Paul Robeson originally opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1978, later transferring to the Booth Theatre, starring James Earl Jones and directed by Lloyd Richards with original staging by Charles Nelson Reilly. The one-man play had two revivals on Broadway - 1988 at the John Golden Theatre and in 1995 at the Longacre Theatre. Both productions starred Avery Brooks and were directed by Harold Scott.
I recently caught up with Dean to talk about the show, his directorial debut and his feelings about Robeson.
DD: Who is Paul Robeson to you?
PHD: Paul Robeson, when he came along there was no Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He actually was the first hero in many ways. He was an American hero and an All-American football hero. When he came along an all American picture appeared in Life magazine. He was also the first movie star. Sidney [Poitier] was the first Hollywood movie star.
DD: Did you ever meet him?
PHD: I met him once. I was on my way to prep school and I got on the train and when I walked into the dining car there he was sitting there. I was very into film so I recognized him. I sat down. He sent the waiter over to invite me to join him. We talked. I was about 13 or 14. I asked him why they called him a communist. He never said he was a communist or socialist. He just explained why he was doing what he was doing.
DD: Did the meeting change you?
PHD: Nobody changes. It enlightened me. In the Midwest we didn’t think there were other black folks in the west. We just thought they were in the south. I had been taught in text books, schools and movies that we were savages.
DD: Were you more self-confident as a youngster because of your upbringing?
PHD: My grandfather lived in Mississippi. He had two farms. They were like the Rockefellers. There was still segregation. I was very aware. It’s amazing how some people will go see a movie about slavery, but don’t want to deal with segregation. They are ashamed that they went through it, probably because they suffered from it because of their parents. People like my grandfather were imitating the overseers. They beat their children. My grandmother was very light-skinned. She had six children. One was dark and my grandfather beat him. I was very aware.
DD: So how did Robeson come into play?
PHD: Robeson was the only one you could point to for inspiration at that time. He was an enormous sized man. He was 6’3”, a tremendous physique, a Renaissance man. We’ve lost that now. Our behavior. We are killing each other off. The black community has lost its leadership. There are also no black doctors in Harlem. There is a lack of leadership in the black community. If we are not careful, we will be two different groups. NAACP needs to fight about privatizing prisons, which is another form of slavery. We do nothing. We are too busy being on television and going around inspecting things and running our mouths.
DD: Why did you write this?
PHD: I was asked to write it by Universal Pictures. James Earl Jones recommended me.
DD: Why is this written as a one-man show?
PHD: It could be produced. I wrote a film, then I turned it into a one-man show.
DD: In 1977 you wrote, Freeman.
PHD: People are still mad about my play Freeman, which is about how family is destroying young black men. We want to say white folks did it. That removes us from the responsibility.
DD: Is there hope for the black community?
PHD: I don’t know about hope in that sense. I just report on what I see. My hope is that they will see clearly. We have black folks running around calling themselves playwrights. There are now seven or eight one-man shows on Robeson. I have been blacklisted.
DD: Why are you blacklisted?
PHD: I’m too good. I can write. I know how to write. What they would rather do is get someone who can’t write well. Then it looks like we can’t write.
DD: Who do you consider a good playwright?
PHD: Richard Wesley, Charles Fuller and Ed Bullins.
DD: You didn’t name one woman.
PHD: Can’t point to one woman. Maybe the woman who wrote For Colored Girls (Ntozake Shange).
DD: Do you think writers are under appreciated?
PHD: There is an attempt to control what black folks write – by black people. In every black play there is some anger and a laundry list of complaints. We will not deal with the real problem in the black community, like murder. Cities keep trading who has more murder. It’s Detroit, Chicago, LA. I’ve had three nephews that have been murdered in LA. You can’t build up the black community because of crime.
DD: Has this play changed over the years?
PHD: I took out all the improvements people put in, Lloyd Richards mainly. Then James Earl Jones, he is the worst actor I’ve ever seen. He’s a buffoon. Just look at The Great White Hope. Sidney Poitier – is one of the great actors.
DD: You have a bone to pick with James Earl Jones?
PHD: He did a great deal of damage to black writers. James Earl Jones said he had given up on black writers because they don’t write for what he wants. He should have kept his mouth shut about that. Why would black folks want to do a black version of, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof? They want to escape. The man, Big Daddy, featured in the play would have been a slaveholder. In black theater we reached this point where they want to pass for white on stage. Don’t want to deal with the realities of black America in 2014. This nonsense about black men and black women. Black men can’t oppress black women. They don’t control anything. They can beat them up but that’s the end of it. And, I’m not saying they should beat women. I’m saying that’s all they can do because they can’t control women. Black relationships are tainted – this is very sick. Black people should not support white shows with a black cast. Never heard of white folks wanting to do A Raisin in the Sun. We’re going to take a problem in white America and transfer it to ourselves.
DD: Back to James Earl Jones.
PHD: I’m not after James Earl Jones. I have the right to dislike what he does. He has hurt black writers. They will take stuff like that and use it as a weapon against us. He and I are not friends. We were born on the same day. I’m not questioning his right to do it. I’m questioning his wisdom in saying it.
DD: In your research, what did you find out about Robeson that you didn’t already know?
PHD: He couldn’t whistle. I thought that was a great irony. He was a Phi Beta Kappa. He spoke 27 languages and was a world traveler, but he couldn’t whistle. I thought that was ironic.
DD: Lets talk about Keith David. Why is he the right actor for this role?
PHD: It may very well be a great performance. He’s giving me what he has to give. He’s playing his Paul Robeson.
DD: Lets talk about the play.
PHD: The play begins with him as an old man. And they are going to have a tribute to him at Carnegie Hall. My first thought was to put him on a bench in a park and he doesn’t know who he is. If I wrote it that way, people would think he was crazy. He should have been crazy considering what they put him through. They tried to assassinate him on several occasions. White folks told black folks that Paul Robeson was a spy, black folks turned on him. The man couldn’t make a living. The way we treated him was shameful.
DD: Do you write for you or for your audience?
PHD: Neither one. You write for what you find to be true based on a theme.
DD: When you are finally complete with a play – are you satisfied?
PHD: No, I don’t deal with things like that. It’s never going to be perfect. Even in Hamlet. No play is perfect just like no human being is perfect. You are satisfied that the life you have tried to create.
DD: You are currently working on a book called, Jazz Acting. How is it going?
PHD: I’ll finish it and then die. I’ll be discovered after I’m dead.
Paul Robeson, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd.; Performance schedule: 8 p.m. Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. through March 30, which was part of the original schedule; Three additional performances are set for 8 p.m., Fri., April 18; 8 p.m. Sat., April 19 and 7 pm., Sun., Apr. 20 at 7 p.m. to make up for the canceled opening weekend performances; Tickets: $30-$60; Single tickets are available online at ebonyrep.org or by phone at 323-964-9766. Groups of 10 or more are available via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 323-964-9766.