City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Call Mister Robeson

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 18 August 2007

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C soco
Tayo Aluko & Friends
Running time: 
Olusola Oyeleye (director), Tayo Aluko (writer)
Tayo Aluko (Paul Robeson), Alexa Butterworth (pianist)

Tayo Aluko's one-person play about the life of Paul Robeson is a tour de force. Aluko covers Robeson's life from college days till near its end, taking in both Robeson the performer and political activist. It's quite a challenge, which Aluko rises to with an obvious relish for both his subject and the material which made Robeson such a phenomenon for many years. In the 1940's and 50's, few homes possessing a gramaphone or 'radiogramme' (the stereo system of the 1950's) did not also possess at least one Paul Robeson recording.

As a major-selling, black, recording artist, it's fair to call Robeson a phenomenon of his times. Most other African-American recording artists earned very little from their recordings in their life-times; Robeson's earning at the peak of his career would have been significant for any singer, let alone a black one from the United States.

Aluko is not, of course, Robeson, but his strong and pleasant voice is more than able to cover Robeson standards with style and grace. Alexa Butterworth provides excellent accompaniment and incidental music. Aluko's acting is as considered as his singing, his performance a careful balance of considerable skill and shrewd judgement.

For those who are familiar with the outline of Robeson's life and political stances, there are frankly no surprises. This is a straightforward, albeit honest retelling of Robeson's life, focusing toward its end on Robeson's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Commission in the dark hey-day of Senator Joe McCarthy. We arrive there via Robeson's espousal of socialism in the nineteen thirties, his visits to the USSR, and the Peaksville riots of the late nineteen forties.

Robeson was an ambivalent figure for many involved in the Civil Rights struggles of the Fifties and Sixties, seen as someone who had gained by 'playing the white man's game', his politics were the pose of an arriviste who could afford to espouse causes in comfort.

It concludes with him sidelined, no longer a role model to a new generation of African-Americans, aspiring to different versions of the future and willing to venture further to achieve them. Aluko's play perhaps wisely ends here, a great story well told, but without a hard question at its end.

Nevertheless, for Aluko's performance alone, and his rendition of many of Robeson's songs, this remains a very worthwhile hour and a half in the theatre.

Time: 6.50pm, 12-18 August

Copyright: Bill Dunlop 2007, published on, August 2007