Paul Robeson

Definition

Theater

  • (1898 - 1976) The Black US actor; despite outstanding performancesin Shakespeare, he is best remembered for singing 'Ol' Man River'in Show Boat. The son of a former slave, Robeson studiedlaw before making his professional acting debut in 1921 at New York'sLafayette Theatre in Simon the Cyrenian. In 1924 he playedJim Harris in Eugene O'Neill's play about a mixed marriage, AllGod's Chillun Got wings. When word got out that the play featureda scene in which a White woman knelt down before the Black actor,cast members were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. O'Neill was so impressedwith Robeson that he revived his earlier play The Emperor Jones(1920) for him to appear in. It opened in 1925 at London's ComedyTheatre, transferring to Broadway the following year.

    Robeson won international fame for his role as Joe in theJerome Kern musical Show Boat, which he played in the firstLondon production of 1928 and the 1932 Broadway revival. Further successcame with Othello (1930), in which he played opposite PeggyAshcroft at the Savoy Theatre, sparking an off-stage romance. He wasthe first Black Othello since Ira Aldridge (the so-called 'AfricanRoscius') in the 1860s. In 1943 he returned to America toplay the part in a Theatre Guild production that ran for 295 performanceson Broadway, a record for a US Shakespeare production.

    During the McCarthy era Robeson's outspoken sympathy for left-wingcauses and naive attitude to the Soviet Union attracted much criticism andhe was prevented from travelling abroad. It was not until 1959 that hereturned to Britain, to sing at the Albert Hall and play Othelloat the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Robeson subsequently wentinto semi-retirement in America, while continuing to sing and campaign forcivil-rights causes. He had already done much to open the mainstream theaterto other Black actors.

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