When the one-man play "Paul Robeson" by Phillip Hayes Dean originally hit Broadway, approximately fifteen years ago, it starred James Earl Jones and I remember it being better than the reviews said it was. I thought it was a lively, fun bio-play, as such things go, and it seemed to have a reasonably tight construction, one which survived the transfer to television when the production was taped for PBS.
I thought very differently about the play when Avery Brooksthen riding the crest of his memorable Hawk portrayal on TV's "Spenser for Hire"took his first stab at in New York, first off, then on Broadway in 1988. Brooks is a powerful actor, and as the laid-back, street savvy Hawk, he was natural and the epitome of cool. As Robeson, I found him bewilderingly stiff: his words over-articulated to the point of affectation, his dramatic beats seeming programmed and self-conscious more than spontaneous. (I distinctly remember too taking the splendid lady who was my girlfriend at the timea fan of Hawkto see it, with a "you're gonna love this" hard sell in my voice. But not only wasn't it the same experiencewith another actor in the lead, that, of course, would changeit didn't even "feel" like the same play. We were both sore disappointed. The only thing that had improved was the singingBrooks is an operatic bass; so where Jones had agreeably faked his way through a few musical moments, Brooks genuinely had the goods.)
So I approached Brooks' second and current crack at the play with serious trepidation and no expectation of staying alert for long, much less liking it.
But it turns out to be an unexpected Christmas/Chanukah present. Brooks is still something of an "invented" personality for me, and usually a klik or two shy of utterly convincing naturalism...but this time, somehow, he has more convincingly melded the bigness of his persona with the bigness of his subject, and there are moments where you believe you are actually in the presence of Robeson himself.
Robeson, as most of you know, was one of the earliest break out actors of color on the American scene, not only refusing to play demeaning "servant" roles, but also an outspoken activist for civil rights, way before such outspokenness from a black man was heard of in most quarters, much less fashionable. In cataloguing Robeson's accomplishments, with humor and drama, Dean's play does quite nicely.
Nicer still, this time around, the script includes much more opportunity for Robeson to sing, so Mr. Brooks puts his formidable instrument to fuller use. I think that's part of how the show has improved: the inclusion of songs heightens the playing style, so the (æsthetic) hugeness of Brooks, once distracting, now seems well-suited. And, of course, Mr. Brooks sings beautifully. My companion for the evening, a woman not giving to speaking hyperbolically, said, in long, drawn out, slightly breathless tones: "I could listen to him sing for a very long time!"
The bad news: you are indeed, with Brooks for a very long time, longer than the play can easily sustain, longer than the previous versions. Having been through the play thrice now, I was used to its twists and turns, and, in expecting them, didn't feel the length as much as most people. But be warned: including intermission, it clocks in at two hours and forty minutes, with the second act longer than the firstand most people, albeit with forbearance, do feel it. And rightfully so: 2:40 is a helluva long time to spend with one manwell, two men; but I'll get to that. (I'm not sure about this, but my guess is that the text of the play was not edited down to accommodate the musical material that has been added.)
More bad newsarguably. For all Robeson's accomplishments, he was not a saint, and he had a dark side. The play chronicles his justifiably blistering testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee...while side-stepping the fact that Robeson was, indeed, a member of the Communist Party. The play implies a constant devotion to his wife Effiebut never mentions his philandering, most famously with Uta Hagen, the white actress who played Desdemona to his Othello.
No, Mr. Dean's play presents Robeson as an icon, who almost always did, and said, just the right thing at just the right time. Arguably too, when Mr. Dean wrote that play, black America needed for white America to see Robeson in that light, but I think these days, especially in a theatrical context (which tends not to draw in the [to put it politely] unenlightened conservatives in any event), the Mssrs. Dean and Brooks could widen the scope of the character as they have the music, without doing any harm to the play or Robeson's reputation. Indeed, it might add another, humanist dimension to the drama of a layered and complex man.
Sharing stage with Mr. Brooks, tickling the ivories, singing along and occasionally riding solo, is Ernie Scott. His is an ingenuous presence, and he plays beautifully. The play doesn't do a great deal with this conceit, but for the record, Mr. Scott is not onstage as musical director per se. Rather, he nominally plays the roleor, at least, suggests the presence ofLarry Brown, Robeson's longtime colleague, friend and accompanist.
It's difficult to judge the contributions of a director in the context of a play such as "Paul Robeson"...but to the extent that the evening has improved mightily, Harold Scott, who helmed the production last time as well, is to be commended.
And for the record: while the play is too long, the run is too short. This time around, Brooks rings down the final curtain on Sunday, the 31st of December. Here's hoping that on his next leave from Starfleet, he may bring the evening around for a longer stay.
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