“Paul Robeson” tries to convey a legend’s journey

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"Paul Robeson," is a one-man show with Nathaniel Stampley

The play Paul Robeson, covers Robeson’s life up to his last concert appearance

Crossroads Theatre Company is the first constituent company of the new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center to produce a show at the new venue with their production of Paul Robeson by Phillip Hayes Dean, directed by the company’s Producing Artistic Director, Marshall Jones III.  While the result is decent, I wish it could have been better.

"Paul Robeson," is a one-man show with Nathaniel Stampley
“Paul Robeson,” is a one-man show with Nathaniel Stampley at the new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center

Paul Robeson, a one-man show, covers Robeson’s life from his first day at Rutgers University to what would have been his last concert appearance at Carnegie Hall before retiring from public appearances.  It is performed as a series of anecdotes related by Robeson, played by Nathaniel Stampley, with piano music provided by his long-time accompanist Lawrence Brown, played by Nat Adderley Jr.

After tales of racism at Rutgers and the courtship of his wife, we head into his early concert and stage successes on Broadway and in London. Concert tours in Europe in the years between World Wars open his eyes to the threat of fascism. Appearances in the Soviet Union introduce him to the early promise of communism. Trips to Africa confirm his belief in the ongoing evils brought by the colonial system.  His return to the United States in 1939 marks the beginning of his political activism, leading to a confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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The play was not a success in its 1979 Broadway debut starring James Earl Jones, with Robeson’s only child joining prominent artists and activists in protesting the play as a trivialization of Robeson’s life. A 1983 revival starring Avery Brooks, produced at Crossroads under the direction of Hal Scott with Scott and Brooks reworking the script was more successful, and it left an impression on this production’s director. While I believe this was the version of the script used for this production, Mr. Jones was let down by his script, his lead actor, and his lighting crew.

Nathaniel Stampley is a perfectly adequate actor with a decent voice, and he does well enough portraying Robeson over six decades. However, he is not quite up to the task of bringing other, unseen characters to life–Robeson’s father and brothers and his wife Eslanda, for example. Mr. Stampley’s grasp on his lines was somewhat loose, leading to numerous flubs and hesitations during the play. He also seemed to have a problem with his microphone, adjusting it several times during his performance. The script, painting Robeson as a secular saint, glosses over major life events — the birth of his son, the extramarital affairs that put a strain on his marriage, his deteriorating health due to the effects of McCarthy era blacklisting, to name a few. Finally, often during the show light cues that should have illuminated Mr. Stampley left him literally in the dark, although it is possible that this was less the fault of the lighting crew and designer Timothy Cook than it was of Mr. Stampley missing his mark.

Two unforeseen events brought excitement to the evening. In the middle of the first act, a gentleman who was unwell tried to get to the theatre lobby but fainted in the aisle. The production was halted, the house lights brought up, and the rescue squad called while a medic and a doctor took care of the gentleman. After he was taken out on a stretcher, the audience was apprised of his condition and the play resumed. Then during intermission, the PAC’s fire alarms went off, and the audience was led outside to await the fire department’s arrival prior to getting the OK to return.

The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center is a spacious venue with modern design. The Arthur Laurents Theatre is comfortable and intimate. While Paul Robeson is a decent introduction to the life of this artist, athlete, and social activist, it is a flawed work. Because of this, it was not a good offering for the opening production of Crossroads Theatre Company in its new home. However, Crossroads Theatre has a history of memorable productions, and while I look forward to seeing their future shows, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend spending an evening with Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson is presented by the Crossroads Theatre Company in the Arthur Laurents Theatre at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through September 15, 2019.  For tickets and more information, visit NBPAC.org.