Call Mr Robeson - Tayo Aluko
Francesca Lewis, Culture Correspondent
For my dad's birthday, I took him to see Call Mr Robeson at Square Chapel, Halifax. As a member of the black community, my dad thinks of Paul Robeson as an icon, despite only really knowing his song from Showboat, "Ol' Man River", which highlighted the struggles of black slaves. We were both surprised by the size of the audience - only about 50 people - but as we watched the show and learned about Robeson's life, we found out how someone so celebrated in the mid-20th century could become so obscure by the 21st.
Call Mr Robeson features the magnetic and intense Tayo Aluko performing a 90 minute monologue, peppered with songs and full of Robeson's own words, accompanied by pianist Michael Conliffe. It takes the form of a series of flashbacks, as Robeson is looking back over his life, looking through various memorabilia littered about the stage.
Ayuko's voice is a beautifully old-fashioned baritone and, while that is different to Robeson's own bass range, Ayuko does capture Robeson's sound very well. This is not an impersonation, but rather an homage, a sketch of Paul Robeson, or of his legacy. The show presents us with the facts and Robeson's subjective judgments, but leaves the rest for us to decide.
I asked Tayo if it was hard to maintain the boundary between himself and Robeson, and what he felt they had in common,
"The fact I agree with most of what he stood for helps" he said, "His life helped me to understand a lot of things I'd felt instinctively for a long time."
He went on to say that Robeson's socialism and commitment to ideas of equality and peace were things he could relate to. It is hard to believe that this is Ayuko's first one man show, but he told me that before this he had been an architect. When his attempts to bring conservationist ideas to architecture were negatively received, he left that career and created this show, after feeling inspired by a biography of Robeson he'd read. Five years later, the show is still touring.
The inspiring story of Robeson's life, with his strong principles and his refusal to give up on what he believed in, was really moving. Ayuko's performance was perfect, moving effortlessly from wry smiles to regretful tears in seconds. The climax of the story was extremely sad and I found myself crying at the end!
Tayo and I talked about the sad fact that Paul Robeson isn't a name many would recognise today, "He has been written out of history" he said. It is the unfortunate side-effect of the very bad press he received for his political activities, including accusations of communism. This is such a shame because, as Tayo put it, Robeson was "not anti-American, just pro-justice".
As he talked about his hero, with such passion, it was obvious to me that Tayo has a deep connection to Robeson, beyond that of actor and character.
Call Mr Robeson is a fascinating, intense, sometimes funny show that touches on many important chapters of American, and African American, history. Tayo told me about his intention to publish it in the future, so that it can be performed all over the world, but I really can't imagine anyone inhabiting the part quite like Tayo Aluko.
Call Mr Robeson - Tayo Aluko, 21st January 2013, 14:28 PM