Such a legendary personality was Paul Robeson, a number of plays have been written about this actor-singer-athlete-activist. The latest is by another African-American playwright-actor of note, Ossie Davis, featuring original compositions (and arrangements of traditional songs) by Jason Robert Brown. The latter is poised to become a major figure on the musical theatre scene when Parade, his collaboration with Alfred Uhry and Hal Prince, opens on Broadway this season.
As for Paul Robeson - All American, the drama receives its world premiere July 13 as a benefit for NYC's TheatreWorks/USA, which presents original plays geared towards younger audiences. John Henry Davis directs the piece, which features choreography by Thomas DeFrantz. The performance takes place at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. For information call (212) 647-1100.
Robeson, born April 9, 1898, was a football hero at Rutgers University and a graduate of Columbia Law School who was persuaded by Eugene O'Neill to forsake the bar for the stage. His first play, in 1924, was O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings at the Provincetown Players theatre. He went on to star in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and also gained fame for his 1943 Othello on Broadway. He became closely identified with the Kern-Hammerstein song "Old Man River," which he first sang in the 1928 London production of Show Boat.
Robeson, who has been hailed by some as "the grandfather of the Civil Rights movement," marched in civil rights protests and labor strikes in the U.S. and abroad in the '30s and '40s. In later years he was criticized for visiting the Soviet Union as an avowed Communist. Robeson died in 1976; two years later James Earl Jones appeared on Broadway in a one man show about the actor's life.
The Robeson play is part of TheatreWorks/USA's Free Summer Theatre program, begun in 1989 as a way to bring issue-oriented theatre to "the children of our city." -- By David Lefkowitz