nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
November 20, 2005
New Federal Theatre’s revival of Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson is a celebration of the life and achievements of one of the great cultural icons of America in the twentieth century. Peppering his words with excerpts of musical numbers that he sang throughout his career, Paul Robeson reminisces about his life from growing up in Somerville, NJ through the 1960s, when he largely retired from the public spotlight. Citing his brother Reeves’s advice to “never show fear” and to “keep a rock handy,” Robeson relentlessly achieves his dreams by accepting nothing but excellence in himself and by demanding that his abilities be assessed on their merits by those in positions of power. We see Robeson surmounting obstacle after obstacle with bravery, integrity, intelligence, and even humor. Dean’s play traces Robeson life as he goes on to become an All American college football star and Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers, the recipient of a law degree from Columbia University, a celebrated actor starring in the longest-running American Shakespearean production in history, a world-renowned bass vocalist, a tireless and pioneering advocate of civil rights, and a citizen of the world who spoke fifteen languages and championed the cause of world peace.
Bass vocalist Kevin Maynor has stepped into the title role of this production, and his rich, deep intonations both evoke and live up to the famous voice of his subject. Maynor delivers a credible performance all around, capturing Robeson’s pride and dignity in the face of adversity. He also captures a smoldering fire underneath Robeson’s calm exterior that fuels him through this representation of his life. By the time Maynor gets a crack at “Ol’ Man River” at the end of the first act, playwright Phillip Hayes Dean’s homage to Robeson is a portrait of almost superhuman proportions, which is perhaps justified by the almost superhuman accomplishments Robeson achieved.
The second act of Paul Robeson does not have the clarity of the first, and this may be largely because the forces that drive Robeson’s life and activities are more complicated, as are the merits of his achievements. In short, one longs for some sort of analysis from the playwright. So while the show does a good job of repudiating the government’s harassment of Robeson for his public defense of the Soviet Union, we don’t know how or if Robeson reconciled his position to Stalin’s persecutions. We see that Robeson turns his attention to fascism and world peace and are given flashpoints as to what triggered his stances, but we don’t really get a sense of what truly motivated him. When the through-line shifts from Robeson as example to Robeson as advocate, Dean seems to lose the thread that drives the narrative so effectively in the first half. Predictably, it is in the second act that Maynor also starts to noticeably lose much of his command over the material.
The show seems a little rushed in general, and one gets the sense that director Shauneille Perry doesn’t quite have the answers to make Paul Robeson fully effective. Cary Gant, who acts as Maynor’s piano accompanist under the guise of jazz musician Lawrence Brown, also participates in the narrative and joins Maynor as a vocalist intermittently, but when and why those moments occur in some scenes and songs and not in others is rarely made clear. A stronger directorial hand in this bare-boned production would help this piece tremendously, and Maynor seems particularly poorly serviced in this regard. While he may have more experience as a singer than as an actor, Maynor has both charisma and presence, and it’s unfortunate that he seems left out to dry for the length of the show while he invariably paces back and forth from scene to scene. Maybe the greatest lost opportunity is the fact that the musical numbers too seem rushed and are almost never the complete song. We get a good sense of the breadth of Robeson’s songbook, but the short excerpts do not allow Maynor to plumb the depths of their emotional content. Given Maynor’s background and talent, one feels that one of the great assets of this casting has been lost.
Ultimately, this theatrical biography is not meant to be a thorough analysis of the man behind the legend. Robeson as penned by Dean is devoid of any quality that falls short of heroic. If Robeson had doubts or flaws we do not see them, and the only fears we see are the ones that Robeson conquers. Coming from the point of view of a devotee and not that of a critic, Dean portrays Robeson largely the way one would expect him to want to be portrayed publicly. Robeson’s merits, as well as his public positions and explanations, are taken at complete face value, and the piece therefore relinquishes any chance to draw its own conclusions. Because we never get to see beyond Robeson’s public image to look at the man himself, one comes away feeling that we are missing a more complete understanding than this seemingly authorized version provides. Even so, the show’s exaltation of Robeson is powerful and convincing enough to take us along for the ride willingly. Overall, Paul Robeson holds up as an effective and generally engaging tribute to a worthy subject.