Paul Robeson had such a range of influence and achievement that I wondered which Paul Robeson this one-man show would celebrate: the civil rights activist, the Shakespearean actor, the best-selling singer, the Communist, probably not the college football star? The free sheet that accompanies Call Mr. Robeson makes it clear that Tayo Aluko is not about to neglect the great bass’s political role: it makes bang up-to-date reference to 50% increases for bosses of major companies and the possible ejection of the protesters outside St. Paul’s.
In fact writer/performer Tayo Aluko pretty much covers the whole range. He was initially prompted into study of Robeson by an audience member who noted the similarity of his singing to the great man and, while his voice lacks the cavernous depths of Robeson’s, he fields a warm and rich bass-baritone, emotionally charged and heavy on vibrato, that makes the most of such numbers as the old slave spiritual, “Steal Away”, and can remind us of the magic of Robeson in “Ol’ Man River”.
Even the performances of Othello are recalled, with a splendid finale, as Robeson dies, interpolating Othello’s great final speech (“Speak of me as I am...”) into “Goin’ Home”, the spiritual from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. However, it’s Robeson the activist who is celebrated most of all, the 1950s years of black-listing proving the intense and dramatic heart of the piece.
Tayo Aluko’s Robeson is inclined to arrogance and a womaniser (comically conveyed in one of the few touches of humour), at times paranoid and briefly suicidal, but, above all, committed, prodigiously talented and dedicated to the service of others. It’s good to find that the meticulously researched script gives due attention to Robeson’s identification with the Welsh miners which went far beyond the famous film, The Proud Valley.
Call Mr. Robeson was first seen at the Edinburgh Festival four years ago and has toured, sporadically, but with increasing success, ever since – another Yorkshire date, at Scarborough, follows in November. It’s a powerful and moving performance, with Aluko supported by the excellent pianist Michael Conliffe who does far more than accompany the songs; some of the finest moments come from his apposite musical commentary on Robeson in full oratorical flow. Olusola Oyeleye (director) and Phil Newman (designer) provide a simple and effective framework, with the designs ingeniously based around flags and the stored mementoes of Robeson’s life.