On Sunday 7th September, the audience at The Swallow Theatre were taken on a roller coaster journey through the life of actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson.
Pianist Jean-Baptiste Richon accompanied Tayo Aluko who wrote and performed this sensitive portrayal of the ups and downs in the life of the man who was in turn adored and reviled by many in the USA.
Surrounded by a colourful array of photographs and memorabilia, Tayo first took us back to the childhood of Paul Robeson. He continued through his school years when Robeson took the advice of his father to stand up for himself and others like him in an antagonistic environment. We were then given glimpses of the turbulent life that followed.
He explained how he felt most at home in Wales among the miners (where he first realised he was a socialist) and Russia where he was treated as an equal and not looked down on. His communist connections were to cause endless problems for him back in the USA however.
Over the years, as he championed the campaign for civil rights, he was branded too radical and outspoken and was even accused of being a traitor to his country. His radical activism caused him to be disowned even by the leaders and descendants of the civil rights movement. For many years he was unable to have a passport, forbidden to leave the country and his income plummeted from $100,000 a year to $6,000.
Robeson had many women in his life but his wife remained a loyal support until her death. The attitude of US citizens and bureaucracy caused Robeson deep distress and led to more than one breakdown and an attempted suicide.
This mesmerising performance included a number of Robeson’s captivating speeches. He was a gifted orator and, of course there was the music – with well-known songs such as the iconic ‘Ol’ man River’ and the moving ‘Goin’ Home’.
At the end of his performance Tayo gave the audience a chance to share their memories of Robeson and ask questions. He was complimented on the remarkable way he had portrayed Robeson – I don’t think anyone would have faulted either his singing or his accent. Not bad for a Nigerian baritone, representing an American bass singer!
Next at The Swallow – the Freerange Theatre Company returns with two comedies of modern manners from writer Jon Brittain: Phillipa and Will are now in a relationship; and The Wake.
In the former, a love-match faces its ultimate test in Facebook. Phillippa and Will are students with more time for each other than their studies. As they air every developing detail of their relationship on Facebook nothing remains private.
In the latter, an aristocratic wake threatens to end in disaster.
The shows form part of the Wigtown Book Festival on September 28 and 29. .Please contact the box office on 01988 403222 regarding availability for both performances or see wigtownbookfestival.com for a full programme.