The two-day 1st Annual Paul Robeson Theatre Festival staged at the Los Angeles Theatre Center July 18-19 celebrated not only its eponymous artist, but the 20th anniversary of the Robey Theatre Company, dedicated to developing “innovative new plays written about the Black experience.”
The Festival featured works that either specifically portrayed Robeson or were Black-themed in nature. A new three-act play, Paul Robeson in Berlin, written by Robert Coles and Bartley McSwine and directed by Robey’s artistic director Ben Guillory, is based on Robeson’s (Stogie Amir Kenyatta) 1934 trip to Moscow to meet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (who wanted to cast Robeson as Jean Jacques Dessalines in an epic about the Haitian Revolution). Forced to make a layover in Berlin, Paul and his fair-skinned wife Essie (Tiffany Coty) were harassed by the Nazis, who mistakenly saw them as an interracial couple.
On day two, 13 short plays were offered, of which a few highlights:
In Kurt Maxey’s The Agreement, well directed by Dylan Southard, Robeson (Shon Fuller) takes an informal, man-to-man meeting with President Truman (Anthony Pellegrino) at the White House. This rendezvous supposedly took place shortly after a very public meeting between Robeson and other civil rights leaders with Truman in 1946 to discuss proposed anti-lynching legislation. The depiction of Robeson is in keeping with how Paul Robeson, Jr. described the confrontation: “He told President Truman that if there wasn’t an anti-lynching bill, African Americans in the South would avail themselves of their constitutional right to armed self-defense and compel military intervention by the federal government.”
This insubordinate attitude, combined with leftist politics, landed Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson’s (Odell Ruffin) defiance is captured in playwright Alicia Tycer’s imaginative H.U.A.C., in a surreal, Brechtian piece creatively directed by Southard. Lisa Renée vamps it up as Paul’s defense attorney as he appears before the Committee in 1956, in a futile effort to get his passport back. She is astonished that he refuses to take the deal she has cut for him. Robeson likewise confounds the prosecutor (Ian Forester), treating the not-so-grand inquisitors with the contempt they so richly deserved.
A more personal side of Robeson is depicted in Nui Brown’s Eslanda Unplugged, wherein his wife Essie (Eslanda Goode Robeson) confronts Paul (here portrayed by Jah Shams) over his philandering and the overall state of their marriage. As the wronged wife, Elizabeth June is excellent, putting him more on the defensive than HUAC did! The deft performances, adeptly directed by Robert Clements, depict a couple who still love one another, but for whom monogamy is complicated when so much temptation is at hand, as they reach for an understanding about their marriage and the passion they once felt.
I have no quibble with Eslanda Unplugged from a dramatic point of view, because it’s well acted and written, and captivating to watch. However, its portrayal of the private lives of public people raises disturbing questions: Do we really have the right to know what goes on between a husband and a wife behind closed doors? (For the record, Essie publicly supported Paul while he was being persecuted by HUAC.) What happened to the old admonition against reading other people’s letters? Some may appreciate Eslanda Unplugged as a feminist statement; others will deem it “TMI,” stuff that is really none of our damn business.
La’Chris Jordan’s Deep Rivers takes us behind the scenes to a private meeting, during the 1960s, between the older Robeson (Frank Faucette) and a civil rights activist called James (Aaron Jennings), inspired by CORE’s James Farmer. Farmer offers Robeson a way out of the wilderness by renouncing his radicalism for rehabilitation as part of the Civil Rights brethren. But for Robeson, this recantation would betray his own self.
The most interesting of the non-Robeson mini-plays was Greenwood 1964, wherein Harry Belafonte (played by the drama’s writer/director Mohammed Ali Ojarigi) and Sidney Poitier (Montelle Harvey) hide out from the KKK in a Mississippi “safe house” during “Freedom Summer.” Belafonte was close to Robeson and to Poitier’s left, and the two stars clash as they debate the cause and its costs to celebrities.
Let’s hope this Robeson-palooza indeed becomes an annual event. As Robeson famously said, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.”
For more info see: www.robeytheatrecompany.org/.
Photo: Co-Founders Danny Glover and Ben Guillory with recognition certificate recipients Kellie Dantzler, Levy Lee Simon, and the first recipient of “The Robey” Dwain A. Perry on opening night.