Paul Robeson Theatre Festival: Like ‘Ol’ Man River’ Robey keeps rolling along
Dwain A. Parry, Adrenrele Ojo, and Larry Powell in "Bronzeville." | Ed Krieger / Courtesy of Robey Theatre Company

LOS ANGELES—The 2019 Paul Robeson Theatre Festival took place Aug. 23-25 with the theme of Awakening the Past, Present and Future: A Retrospective. This third biennial event was presented at L.A. Theatre Center in downtown Los Angeles by actor Ben Guillory, co-founder and producing artistic director of the Robey Theatre Company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Actor Danny Glover is also a Robey co-founder. As Guillory reminded the audience in the sold-out intimate space, both the festival and company are named after Paul Robeson.

The son of a slave, Robeson was a trendsetter in athletics, academics, acting, and activism. He is probably best known for his deep baritone singing voice, especially for his signature song, “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 Broadway musical Showboat. (See a clip from the 1936 film version here.) The multi-talented Renaissance man was an attorney and star of stage and screen also known for his outspoken pro-Black, pro-communist, pro-Soviet, anti-fascist, anti-racist politics. This incurred the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which blacklisted Robeson during the 1950s.

“The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel” Depicted: Tiffany Coty and Dwain A. Perry. | Tomoko Matsushita

On opening night, the Blue Morning Quintet kicked things off, performing jazz. To mark the Robey’s quarter-century anniversary Guillory bestowed awards honoring supporters. This was followed by the staged reading of The Queen of Los Angeles, a new play developed in the Robey Playwrights Lab by playwrights Oscar Arguello, Melvin Ishmael Johnson, Kurt Maxey, and Julie Taiwo Oni.

This is a bioplay about Gertrude Baines, an actual historical figure. The daughter of former slaves, Gertrude lived long enough to become the world’s oldest human, dying in 2009 at the age of 115! Gertrude lived so long that it took two very talented actresses to depict her: The jovial Juanita Jennings as the older Gertrude and Denise Yolén as the youthful, more angsty Gertrude who comes to L.A. as a youngster and is persecuted. Not only because she is Black during the Jim Crow era but, according to the play, because Gertrude possessed supernatural powers. She supposedly had the power to heal, which I believe earned her the nickname of the Queen of Los Angeles. Gertrude struggles with her gift and the repression she encounters on account of her purported miraculous abilities. When the elderly Gertrude is asked the source of her longevity, Jennings good-naturedly attributes her long life to her diet of “crispy bacon, fried chicken and ice cream.” But of course, one can’t help but wonder what the relationship was between the supercentenarian’s alleged faith healing and her long life.

Juanita Jennings has appeared in many movies such as Basic Instinct and TV series like the USA Network’s Pearson and Fox’s Star (with that other “Queen”: Latifah). She is considerably younger than the character she portrays in Queen. In an eyebrow-raising scene, the older Gertrude encounters “Barry” Obama (Gregory Hinds) when he makes his first public speech at an anti-apartheid in South Africa rally at Occidental College in 1981. She lives long enough to vote for Obama for president because “he’s for the colored people.”

As the younger Gertrude, Denise Yolén displays her dramatic range as the character ages and undergoes lots of changes. Yolén also currently co-stars in a completely different part in Scraps, a heavy drama set in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, about police deadly use of force against unarmed Blacks. Talent agents and casting directors should keep their eye on this beautiful, bright actress who epitomizes what Lorraine Hansberry referred to as being “young, gifted and Black.”

The two-act production was punctuated with live jazz music by the Blue Morning Quintet, which enhanced the play’s various moods and modalities. Directed by Bernadette Speakes, Robey’s presentation of The Queen of Los Angeles taught me a lot about somebody I’d never heard of. Dealing with the fascinating topics of longevity and faith healing (hey, if Trump gets re-elected that may be the only kind of healthcare most Americans will be able to afford!), this staged reading left me wanting more: Experiencing a full production of this play on the Robey’s boards! In any case, the reading ended with another piece by the Blue Morning Quintet and a tasty buffet catered by Shabazz Restaurant and Grill, which included cornbread, collard greens, peach cobbler and—I guess in honor of Miss Gertrude—fried chicken!

The Paul Robeson Theatre Festival continued on Sat., Aug. 24, with matinee and evening performances, plus a 3:00 p.m. show on Sunday of A Retrospective that featured highlights of the works presented by Robey Theatre Company over the past 25 years. The program consisted of a mixture of live and taped performances, including:

“Anna Lucasta” Depicted: Ashlee Olivia and Dwain A. Perry. | Tim Alexander

Souls on Fire by Patrick Sheane Duncan, Yohen by Philip Kan Gotanda, For The Love of Freedom (The Haitian Trilogy) by Levy Lee Simon, The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel by Levy Lee Simon, Bee-luther-hatchee by Thomas Gibbons, Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons, The Emperor’s Last Performance by Melvin Ishmael Johnson, The River Niger by Joseph A. Walker, Pity the Proud Ones by Kurt Maxey, Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan, Bronzeville by Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk, Knock Me a Kiss by Charles Smith, No Place to Be Somebody by Charles Gordone, Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss, and Birdland Blue by Randy Ross Ph.D.

Earlier in the day on Sunday, there was a panel discussion on the Black Theatre Aesthetic in Los Angeles. According to its mission statement, the Robey Theatre Company is dedicated to “develop relevant provocative, and innovative new plays written about the Black experience.” With its third biennial Paul Robeson Theatre Festival, the Robey is fulfilling its raison d’être, and will hopefully continue to do so for at least another 25 years. Just like “Ol’ Man River,” the Robey keeps rolling along. And in doing so, this venerable theatrical company keeps the legacy of activist/actor/singer Paul Robeson alive, well, and still giving hell. For more information about the Robey see here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.