Forgotten Hero: ‘I Go On Singing’ at Fox aims to tell a story of a lost civil rights hero

“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.”

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

Left to right: donnie betts, Jodel Charles and Anthony Brown are seen in this undated courtesy photo. (Photo courtesy Aurora Fox)
Left to right: donnie betts, Jodel Charles and Anthony Brown are seen in this undated courtesy photo. (Photo courtesy Aurora Fox)

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
production.

“(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
dialogue.”

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
measure.

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.

  • steelhammr

    A wonderful effort in a righteous and deserving cause. One important correction though, Paul testified heroically to his right to defend truth, he never tried to dodge any label and his book, “Here I Stand” is a ringing testament to a lifelong commitment to justice. His appearance at the HUAAC was not an effort to prove any negative, it was a broadside at the bigoted policies of the ruling class. For his efforts Paul was stripped of his passport in the USA and this giant of justice gained a worldwide reputation for integrity, honor and artistry. WEB DuBois penned this words about Paul on his 60th birthday:

    “The persecution of Paul Robeson by the government and people
    of the United States during the last nine years has been one of the most
    contemptible happenings in modern history. Robeson has done nothing to
    hurt or defame this nation. He is, as all know, one of the most
    charming, charitable and loving of men. There is no person on earth who
    ever heard Robeson slander or even attack the land of his birth. Yet he
    had reason to despise America. He was a black man; the son of black folk
    whom Americans had stolen and enslaved. Even after his people’s hard
    won and justly earned freedom, America made their lot as near a hell on
    earth as was possible. They discouraged, starved and insulted them.
    They sneered at helpless black children. Someone once said that the best
    punishment for Hitler would be to paint him black and send him to the
    United States. This was no joke. To struggle up asa black boy in
    America; to meet jeers and blows; to meet insult with silence and
    discrimination with a smile; to sit with fellow students who hated you
    and work and play for the honor of a college that disowned you–all this
    was America for Paul Robeson. Yet he fought the good fight; he was
    despised and rejected of men;a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief
    and we hid as it were our faces from him, he was despised and we esteemed
    him not.
    Why? Why? Not because he attacked
    this country. Search Britain and France, the Soviet Union and
    Scandinavia for a word of his against America. What then was his crime?
    It was that while he did not rail at America he did praise the Soviet
    Union; and he did that because it treated him like a man and not like a
    dog;because he and his family for the first time in life were
    welcomed like human beings and he was honored as a great man. The
    children of Russia clung to him, the women kissed him; the workers
    greeted him; the state named mountains after him. He loved their homage.
    His eyes were filled with tears and his heart with thanks. Never before
    had he received such treatment. In America he was a “nigger”;in
    Britain he was tolerated; in France he was cheered; in the Soviet Union
    he was loved for the great artist that he is. He loved the Soviet Union
    in turn. He believed that every black man with blood in his veins would
    with him love the nation which first outlawed the color line.
    I
    saw him when he voiced this. It was in Paris in 1949 at the greatest
    rally for world peace this world ever witnessed. Thousands of persons
    from all the world filled the Salle Playel from floor to rafters. Robeson
    hurried in, magnificent in height and breadth,weary from circling
    Europe with song. The audience rose to a man and the walls thundered.
    Robeson said that his people wanted Peace and “would never fight the
    Soviet Union.” I joined with the thousands in wild acclaim.This,
    for America, was his crime. He might hate anybody. He might join in
    murder around the world. But for him to declare that he loved the Soviet
    Union and would not join in war against it–that was the highest crime
    that the United States recognized. For that, they slandered Robeson;
    they tried to kill him at Peekskill;they prevented him from hiring halls
    in which to sing; they prevented him from travel and refused him a
    passport. His college, Rutgers,lied about him and dishonored him. And
    above all, his own people,American Negroes, joined in hounding one of
    their greatest artists–not all, but even men like Langston Hughes, who
    wrote of Negro musicians and deliberately omitted Robeson’s name–Robeson
    who more than any living man has spread the pure Negro folk song over
    the civilized world. Yet has Paul Robeson kept his soul and stood his
    ground. Still he loves and honors the Soviet Union. Still he has hope for
    America. Still he asserts his faith in God. But we–what can we say or
    do; nothing but hang our heads in endless shame.”