Paul Robeson came to New Zealand in the spring of 1960, playing two concerts in Auckland, visiting Christchurch and Dunedin and exchanging songs with the watersiders in Wellington, on which occasion the Maritime Union made him a lifelong member.
According to biographer Martin Duberman, the US consul in Auckland was pleased to report back to the State Department that ‘no civil reception or other formal type of welcome was tendered to Robeson during his stay’, for that was still his status: that of an enemy within, formerly deposed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and only recently allowed to leave the country again after an eight-year domestic exile in which he was denied his passport.
Robeson’s tour of New Zealand and Australia was a direct outcome of that regained freedom. There are still those who remember it.
Now Paul Robeson is back in Wellington for a series of shows at the Fringe Festival. Tayo Aluko’s Call Mr Robeson: A Life in Songs is a fitting tribute to the great man: a fully rounded study that doesn't gloss over the problematic aspects of his life and politics – including his sympathies for Stalin – and revives his art through the performance of some of his best-known songs.
The play is didactic, which is no slight: it fits on the contrary within a tradition of art and instruction in socialist and trade union circles. I was especially glad in this regard to have taken my 13 year old son to see it. Plus, as I say, Call Mr Robeson is not a work of hagiography or propaganda. In selecting the salient moments of Robeson’s life, Aluko avoided the danger of enumerating his achievements – pioneering athlete, valedictorian, actor, singer, militant, polyglot, musicologist – without also accounting for the steadily mounting toll that celebrity, the sense of responsibility to his own people, and McCarthyism and the FBI exerted on him. Thus from the outset Aluko’s Robeson is a burdened man, and that burden ends up becoming the true subject of the play, along with the space-filling sound of Aluko’s voice.
Some words on that space must be spent as well: The Moorings – a grand and picturesquely decaying ex-boarding house in Thorndon, so-named because of its nautical theme – is a category 1 historic place I had never had the opportunity to visit before. By being so overtly endowed with its own history, it re-localises Robeson’s life, setting it in the colonial South Pacific. This is not an entirely extravagant distortion, insofar as Robeson was a proud internationalist and is reported to have spoken in support of Māori rights during his brief visit to this country. But the effect isn’t merely literal. To tell the story of Paul Robeson in an old villa in Thorndon makes that story mean other things. It reactivates a largely hidden past of social upheaval and activism. That was the latent energy in that room, or so it felt.
The present tense of the performance produces shifts in both time and place. I knew very little of the Peekskill riots before seeing the show, but as Aluko/Robeson recalled them my mind filled with pictures of the Springbok tour (those human chains facing the police and an angry crowd…). And while Robeson’s refusal to play to segregated audiences spoke of a specific time and place, his campaign against lynchings has deep echoes in our time, when still we need to cry that black lives matter. History, then, seems to have passed both fast and slow, as it always does, asking us to measure the progress made against what is yet to be done.
There is another contemporary echo in some of Robeson’s most famous words – so famous in fact that they became his epitaph. He spoke them at the Albert Hall in London in 1937, at a rally in support of Basque refugee children and the Republican cause in Spain. They both resonate and challenge, in this epoch so contemptuous of radicals and their ideas, of the social role of intellectuals (as recent events close to home have reminded us), of struggle and of the very notion that the status quo may differ from the common good. These words:
The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.
Call Mr Robeson: A Life in Songs (written, produced and performed by Tayo Aluko; direction and dramaturgy by Olusola Oyeleye) is showing at The Moorings in Wellington from February 26 to March 1, then at the Adelaide Fringe from March 4 to 15.