Ten years ago, James Earl Jones, a commanding stage presence to begin with, was so magnificent in "Paul Robeson," Phillip Hayes Dean's "play," that one could overlook the awkward bulges. The narrative was packed to bursting with incidents in the remarkable career of the Rutgers Phi Beta Kappa, All-American football player who became the larger-than-life star of stage, screen and concert hall.
Robeson's was a career that began in adversity and ended with the tarnish of his left-wing allegiance and pacifist ideals. Jones, of course, couldn't match Robeson's trained singing voice, and he didn't try much; he simply filled the theater, the sizable Lunt-Fontanne, with the expansiveness of the man.
Now this solo show is back on Broadway. This time the show is at the modest-sized Golden and with Avery Brooks as Robeson (during evenings, anyway; Herb Downer plays the matinees). And since Brooks is a strong and accomplished actor of wide experience (he's also a drama professor at Rutgers), he is impressive acting out this long (close to three hours) and arduous role.
He sings quite well, too, rendering "Ol' Man River," the "Show Boat" song with which Robeson is closely identified, melodiously and with sufficient thrust.
But size is a factor. While Brooks is an exceedingly graceful performer, both forceful and touching in the more moving episodes he relates, he doesn't fill the theater with the wall-to-wall vocal richness of his predecessor. And so, Brooks' Robeson, though artfully conceived, and delivered in bravura style, is somewhat diminished.
The play begins and ends with the recording by Robeson in which he, then an ailing man in Philadelphia, extended his regrets on a recording to the audience for not being present at a 75th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. "Paul Robeson" is never less than arresting in exploring the wealth of its subject's experiences, including such dramatic moments as his angrily turning his back on a Kansas City concert hall audience because of the absence of blacks in the house. There's a touching moment as this very tall man's tender relationship with a 12-year-old German girl, a dwarf and pianist, to whom he told a fable about the long and short of it.
When Paul Robeson, having survived early hell from his white teammates, went on to become not merely the first Negro All-American but the first All-American of any color from Rutgers, his minister father's favorite nickname for him, picked up from the sports pages, was "The Black Phantom."
At the Golden Theater, Avery Brooks, using hands, face, voice, and body, makes a funny split-second vaudeville turn out of "The Black Phantom," just a few moments after he has more painfully revealed how the Rutgers varsity white pack, led by second-string quarterback Big Red Flanagan, crushed his fingers with their cleats, dislocated his shoulder, broke his nose.
Somewhat later in this dramatized (and indeed dramatic) biography, Robeson, as he tells us - that is, as Avery Brooks does it for us - has just opened at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1924 in O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings." An admirer in the audience comes back to shake hands after the show. "I think you should remember me," he says. It is Big Red Flanagan.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976), actor, singer, rugged individualist of the left, icon of the left, was physically and in a number of other ways - dignity, mostly - as close to a god as this country's ever going to get. He also had several of the grievous flaws of a god - pride, I suppose, and, though there were plenty of obvious reasons for this, a chip on that dislocated shoulder that made for many years of hardshell political naivete about Soviet virtues and American sins.
Perhaps it is summed up in the show at the Golden in a remark by expatriate Robeson during his stay in Britain. "I'm often asked: 'Paul, when will you go back to America?' My standard answer is: 'Why?'"
It's a broad spectrum that playwright Philip Hayes Dean covers and Brooks with great variety and skill recreates, aided only by six bentwood chairs as props (one of them becomes the Cross that young Robeson bears in a Harlem YMCA play about the Crucifixion), a couple of books, a Phi Beta Kappa key, and the talent and voice of Ernie Scott at the piano. Director Harold Scott, no relation, has done a fine, alive job here as with the same show six weeks ago at the South Street Theater.
Brooks too has a voice, though it is not the voice of Robeson (whose is?). He copes manfully with "Old Man River," but I preferred it when he and Ernie Scott, for instance, did a lovely turn at the piano stool on "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out." And who could not respond to the big sing-along of "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" that, in Robeson's 75th year, closes the show - with the actual audience at the Golden, sure enough, singing along? A fairly untypical and stirring moment for Broadway.
No less stirring are Robeson's lovely memories of a Jewish dwarf child whom the Nazis have taken away, and the possibly apocryphal reenactment of his being made to sing to peasants on the Soviet border to prove he is Paul Robeson. "Tovarich!" they cry, as they blanket him with flowers and kisses. No wonder he felt secure in Russia.
You would hardly know that this Avery Brooks, this fellow who uses every conceivable stop and soft and strong pedal on his own personal organ to put himself under Robeson's skin, is the taciturn Hawk of TV's "Spenser for Hire." He is perhaps less grave, or less inner stature, than I think Robeson was, with more of a sense of humor. But the final words of the evening - Othello's words, and Robeson's - go for Brooks too: "I have done the State some service, and they know't."
"Paul Robeson" opened originally, Off Broadway at the South Street Theatre, August 10, 1988. It was transferred to Broadway's John Golden Theatre on September 28, 1988.
The life, or a slice of the life, of one of America's great singers, a man of extraordinary intellect, conviction, physical prowess and artistic sensibility, unfolds with an urgent vibrancy on the stage of the South Street Theater, where ''Paul Robeson'' opened Wednesday night.
With Avery Brooks in the title role of Phillip Hayes Dean's play, in a new production 10 years after its first appearance on Broadway, the many facets of Robeson take turns in the spotlight. Mr. Brooks, known best as Hawk on the television show ''Spenser: For Hire,'' gives a bravura performance as he sings, dances, narrates, ruminates and orates with a mesmerizing versatility. Mr. Brooks does not attempt to mimic, to re-create Robeson, but rather works to summon the spirit of the man.
Mr. Dean's staged biography is in the style of the one-man plays that brought Harry Truman, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling before the footlights in recent decades. But, with the presence of the talented Ernie Scott at the piano and also doing some second-banana turns, ''Paul Robeson'' is more than a one-man stand.
This is an anecdotal approach to Robeson's life, and, while it projects a personality, it is, maybe necessarily, one that provides a mixed picture. Yet Mr. Dean appears to have touched all bases: Robeson the individualist; Robeson the militant leftist, singing ''Joe Hill''; Robeson the proud and sensitive black man quick to counter racist affronts; Robeson the humanist who is sickened by mankind's brutalities.
We follow his career from his beginnings as a New Jersey preacher's son, through Rutgers University (where he became an All-America football star), through Columbia Law School and his first job with a prestigious (and white) Wall Street firm that had no compunctions about displaying him as a sports luminary, but that kept him under wraps as an astute lawyer whose thinking was put into the mouths of white colleagues. Then we learn about his happy marriage, his start as a professional singer (taking the renowned Charles Gilpin's place in ''Showboat'') and his nine-year stay in England, his visits to Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, embattled Spain and the homeland that is Africa, and, finally, the terrible days when he was accused of being a Communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Here is a man influenced by the entire world, and Mr. Brooks acts his way through a multitude of emotions in the three-hour journey. He sings spirituals and whirls crazily in black-bottom and cakewalk steps, he puts on accents that range from broad American to clipped upper-class British. There are moments of comedy and moments of tragedy, moments of relaxation, moments of passion. Anyone who dares to sing ''Ol' Man River'' while portraying Robeson is something of a hero, and Mr. Brooks's delivery is easy on the ear and need not be condescended to.
This is a vehicle equipped with all the thespian gears, and it rolls along energetically, although the first act - a human and humorous telling of a young man on the rise - outclasses the second, which, laden with message and philosophy, slides at times into tedium. Under the direction, quite imaginative, of Harold Scott, and on a virtually bare stage on which plain chairs serve as props, this series of vignettes flashes by dramatically, as though it were a dying man's last vision of himself.
A decade ago, even before this play made its debut, 56 prominent black artists, writers and political leaders issued a protest, claiming that the character of Robeson had been misrepresented to present a man whose motivations would be pleasing to white audiences rather than rooted in fact. The role of biographer is difficult enough in limitless pages, and it may not be possible to paint a full picture in several hours of theater. ''Paul Robeson'' was a first attempt to capture this complex man in a script. It is effective, well-done theater about an American whose real worth has emerged, alas, only retroactively.