AURORA | His name doesn’t always come in the same breath as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, but it should.
Paul Robeson was a trailblazer in the American civil rights movement, an activist whose push for social justice spanned the globe. He excelled in athletics and academics at Rutgers University in the early 1900s; he went on to Columbia Law School before building a successful career as a
musician, actor and artist. He was at the forefront of the push for social justice in America long before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first sermon. He spoke out for the oppressed in countries ranging from Poland to Spain. His role as a humanist sent him to the Soviet Union, a move that also earned him a spot on the American blacklist in the 1950s.
Despite all his pushes for social justice at home and abroad, Robeson rarely earns the same attention as those who carried on his struggle. That’s one of the reasons that Anthony Brown felt so compelled to tell his story.
“I do have a goal. That is to keep the life and legacy of Paul Robeson alive. That really is what’s been motivating me to do the show,” said Brown, co-creator of the biographical drama “I Go On Singing” that’s set to run from Feb. 28 to March 9 at the Aurora Fox. “Many of us stand on his shoulders.”
Brown, who is based in New Mexico, developed the multimedia show with playwright Andrew Flack in 2010. Since then, the show that delves into the life, struggles and causes of Robeson has come along in form and content. Brown and Flack incorporated video clips from extended interviews with legendary folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger. They worked with local theater vet donnie betts to refine and streamline the piece that started largely as a musical drama. betts directs the current
“(Brown) is basically a concert singer. He had done very little acting,” betts said of working with Brown, a professional baritone singer. “I worked with him on being more comfortable on stage, not only in song but also in
Director betts also worked with the playwrights to incorporate different multimedia elements. The show includes clips of Pete Seeger’s interview, where he goes into details about the riots that broke out during a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, in 1949. Those riots had racist and anti-Semitic motivations; they broke out when the crowd learned of Robeson’s appearance at an event that included Seeger. They threw rocks, they threatened violence, they chanted racial epithets. Robeson had to escape with a human shield for fear of assassination.
“(Pete) went into great detail about how the mob showed up,” Brown said. “The policemen weren’t doing anything to prohibit these folks from hurling stones and rocks.”
It was a seminal moment in the American Civil Rights struggle, one that’s largely unknown. Part of that is because of Robeson’s contentious relationship with the American government. In 1956, Robeson testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee to prove he wasn’t a communist. He was blacklisted and shunned, and the stigma lasted long after his death in 1976.
Robeson’s true legacy as a tireless advocate for justice and equality hasn’t disappeared. “I Go On Singing” is one of several recent theatrical productions exploring his life and contributions. From his role as a top football player at Rutgers to his impressive achievements playing Othello on Broadway and performing in films like “Showboat,” the true contributions of this man are hard to
That’s part of what Brown, betts and Flack are trying to do with this show.
“His life is just so impressive on so many different levels,” Brown said. “The thing that impresses me about him really is his forthrightness, his outspokenness, his concern for the ordinary and the common people.”
“I Go On Singing” runs from Feb. 28 to March 9 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Tickets start at $26. Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org.