You know you're in for a good evening at "Paul Robeson" as soon as you hear Avery Brooks' voice. Best known as Capt. Sisko on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," Brooks has a magnificent bass that uncannily evokes Robeson's.
It was Robeson's voice, after all, that catapulted him onto the world scene. He was a man of great courage, which enabled him to bear the cruel obstacles thrown in his way simply to get a college education at Rutgers. Even on the football field, the future All-American encountered hostility from his own teammates.
Robeson went on to Columbia Law School and was made a partner in a New York firm but only wrote briefs. He was not allowed to handle cases in court, even when they involved injustice toward blacks.
Through a series of flukes, he wound up an actor. After appearing in several plays by Eugene O'Neill (who bucked the Ku Klux Klan to cast him), Robeson landed the role of Joe in the original London Company of "Show Boat." In his voice, "Ol' Man River" became a powerful emblem of racial injustice.
In London, Robeson also found the role he would play until his death, that of a senior spokesman for the world's embattled. The positions he sometimes took seem, in retrospect, naive but one can only admire the passion with which Robeson played this role.
Phillip Hayes Dean's play conveys this extraordinary life in an anecdotal way. The play is framed by an incident late in Robeson's life, when a bust of him was being dedicated in Carnegie Hall - he can't bear to attend and spends the evening reminiscing about the painful journey that led to this honor.
Brooks is a commanding figure on stage, but what may be more important is the glint of humor in his eyes, which projects through the theater as resonantly as his voice and which serves as a useful antidote to the often rhetorical style of Dean's writing.
Brooks sings songs associated with Robeson, and the music (in which he receives splendid support from the great Ernie Scott) also brings deep emotional richness to the play.
Brooks' Robeson is a galvanizing recreation of an American legend.
You might think Paul Leroy Robeson had it all - son of a former slave who himself became a university-educated precaher, he was intellectually brilliant, one of the great all-around athletes of his generation, an All-American football player, Phi Beta Kappa, a honors graduate of Rutgers University and Columbia Law School.
Oh yes...and he could also sing. And act.
But Robeson was born in 1898, when, even more than we can already easily envisage today, he was definitely black in a white world.
Robeson's career - all diamonds and ashes with its unbelievable ups and tragic downs - provides one of the great American life stories. And at times that story was a political weathervane for race relations and human rights during this stormy century.
Dignified if controversial, Robeson was a great American in an arena where America did not at the time always find the courage to be great.
On his 75th birthday, April 15, 1973, Robeson's son organized a gala, produced by Harry Belafonte, at Carnegie Hall.
Robeson himself, by then a sick man, did not appear. But there were many speakers, among them Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, who spoke of Robeson having been, in her words, "buried alive" because, even earlier than her husband, he had "tapped the same wells of latent militancy."
It is that same Carnegie gala, slightly less than three years before Robeson's death, which the black playwright Phillip Hayes Dean has taken as point of departure for his wonderfully moving play "Paul Robeson," which last night returned to Broadway at the Longacre Theater for a regrettably brief season.
Dean's play - with appropriate music - traces Robeson's remarkable career, from the time his father told him: "Go with your head and not your heart," through a life that careened him across the world stage.
It is a slightly angled shot that Dean has snapped of his hero. We are, for example, told of his great love for his wife, Essie, with no mention of his constant womanizing and the fact that he was, as he eventually realized, partly a dupe and pawn of Soviet propaganda, is skated over.
But the reality and power of Robeson's once underestimated achievements and the beauty of his character - all of which is amply confirmed by Martin Duberman's superb yet unvarnished 1988 biography of the man - are illuminatingly presented in Dean's engrossing one-man drama.
When the play was first presented on Broadway in 1978 it was finely acted by James Earl Jones, and 10 years later it had a second outing, staged by Harold Scott and starring Avery Brooks.
It is Brooks - nowadays a formidable TV star ("Star Trek - Deep Space Nine," "Spenser") - together again with Scott, who have brought back this "Paul Robeson."
Brooks may not have the massive power of Robeson himself - that absurdly larger-than-life quality that once seen you could never forget - but he has a passion and fire, and, actually, more technique than Robeson himself ever needed.
Find time to see it. Brooks is a revelation, not simply as an actor (and, believe me there's nothing simple about that) but, faultlessly matched by the musical direction of Ernie Scott as Larry Brown Robeson's longtime friend and accompanist, even as a singer. A great show.
Of all the imposing figures who have strutted across the stage of American culture in this century, none has been more invested with a superman mystique than Paul Robeson. The black singer, actor, athlete, humanitarian and crusader for social justice embodied a concept of nobility that in today's cynical age of tell-all television seems almost touchingly quaint. And Avery Brooks's resoundingly oratorical portrayal of the singer in Phillip Hayes Dean's play "Paul Robeson" should do nothing to diminish his stature.
With his penetrating bass voice, Mr. Brooks lends Robeson-associated songs like "Jacob's Ladder" and "Joe Hill" a rich, rumbling fervor. And his version of "Ol' Man River," with revised lyrics purging the word "nigger," echoes the deep, rolling resonance of Robeson's vintage recordings.
In Act II, when Robeson is grilled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his Soviet sympathies, the actor responds with a denunciation of American racism so thundering it rattles the walls of the Longacre Theater, where the play opened last night.
"Paul Robeson" is actually a return engagement to Broadway, both for the play and for its two principals, Mr. Brooks and Ernie Scott, who accompanies on the piano, sings and takes secondary roles. The two appeared briefly on Broadway in the same roles in 1988. Ten years before that, a production at the Joseph Papp Public Theater starring James Earl Jones was attacked by a coalition of black intellectuals who said the play presented a false picture of Robeson.
Be that as it may, the play is nothing more nor less than an entertaining, unabashedly reverential introduction to a legendary figure. Mr. Dean's portrait doesn't probe the psychological depths or closely scrutinize the shifting political views of a man whose perception of himself and of his black identity changed continually.
The first act is a series of vivid anecdotes that follow him from his childhood home in Somerville, N.J., through Rutgers University, where he was a football star, to Columbia University Law School, to his early days in the theater. By Act II, he is a world-famous actor living a luxurious expatriate life in England and is a darling of the British aristocracy.
The rise of Fascism and visits to Spain (where he meets the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War), Germany (where he senses the impending Holocaust) and the Soviet Union (where he intuitively identifies with the proletariat) impel him to use his celebrity to speak out on political and social issues. He defines himself as "a scientific socialist," and during the cold war retains sympathy for Communism because of its anti-Fascist agenda.
As the political ground shifts in America, he finds himself blacklisted, his career in a shambles, and in Peekskill, N.Y., he is nearly lynched. The play, which begins and ends with Robeson's taped message of regret over being unable to attend his 75th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, barely alludes to the crippling depression of his later years. He died in 1976 at the age of 77.
Act I, with its warm family memories and descriptions of his triumph over racial harassment at Rutgers, where he was the third black student to be enrolled, has an intimacy that is lacking in Act II, which focuses on the public figure. The play simply doesn't have the time to explore Robeson's political awakening with much subtlety. And aside from noting his courtship and marriage to his strong-minded wife, Essie, it doesn't explore his personal life, which included many love affairs.
In his bravura performance, Mr. Brooks infuses this mosaic of reminiscences with a carefully modulated intensity, imposing a clearly defined emotional arc on the material. From a brilliant, stubborn young man determined not to show fear in the face of persecution, Robeson metamorphoses into an international star briefly infatuated with his own celebrity before his social conscience is aroused by his global travels. From then on, he is an increasingly driven and angry advocate for social justice and racial equality whose willingness to give up almost everything to assert his principles gives him almost tragic dimension.
No matter what details may be missing or what facts fudged in the construction of this sketchy dramatic valentine, "Paul Robeson" conveys an inspiring moral fervor.