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Paul Robeson
by Phillip Hayes Dean
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 15, 2015

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Paul Robeson was something of a Renaissance Man. A star athlete, a scholar, a lawyer, an activist, he was probably most well-known as a world-class singer and actor in stage and films.  His life and career spanned two-thirds of the 20th century, so perhaps it’s fitting that a play about him should have a three hour running time.  Throughout those three hours, only two men are on stage in the Black Rep’s latest production, and they hold the attention of the audience well. A vivid and thorough depiction of a famous and sometimes controversial figure, Paul Robeson especially serves well as a showcase for its headlining actor.

The play is essentially a one-man show with a piano player. While Charles Creath, as Robeson’s accompanist Lawrence Brown, is on stage for the whole show, and does at one point late in the play come out from behind the piano to appear as another character in the drama, most of the attention in this show is focused on Robeson himself, played with a great deal of charisma and boundless energy by Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. The story follows Robeson from his early days growing up in New Jersey to his education at Rutgers and his All-American football career, then to law school and Harlem in the 1920s, where he was discovered as a singer and actor. From there, Robeson’s career took him across the country touring, and eventually overseas, where he starred in the London premiere of Show Boat. The show goes on to depict Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, his travels to the Soviet Union and his general opposition to fascism, and his subsequent interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It’s all staged as a kind of recital in which Robeson tells his stories while Brown plays the piano, and Robeson occasionally sings in his deep, rich voice, from classic traditional songs to iconic theatrical standards like “Ol’ Man River”.

Without much of a set (it’s a piano and a few chairs), the whole show here is mostly McNichols’ dynamic performance, with able support by Creath as Brown and, briefly, as the HUAC questioner. The show is about Robeson, though, and it’s a very demanding role to which McNichols more than does justice. He manages to hold the stage for the show’s entire running time while maintaining his vitality and strong stage presence throughout. With a rich, deep,resonating voice, he also ably delivers the  musical selections in the production, conveying the sense of Robeson’s remarkable talent.  McNichol’s also ably portrays Robeson’s growth of maturity and worldliness as he grows up, goes to college, graduates, becomes involved in show business and politics, and sees more and more of the world. Important figures in his life, such as his father, brothers and wife, are represented as well in McNichols’s vividly recounted stories. It’s a very strong, tour-de-force type of performance.

Although this is a very long play, it’s a fascinating portrayal of an important figure in recent history–as an artist, and activist, and a complex and intriguing man. Robeson is perhaps not as well-known now as he used to be, which is a shame because he’s well worth remembering. Anchored by McNichols’s memorable and engaging performance, this play is a fitting tribute to this multi-talented and memorable cultural icon.

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

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