Paul Robeson play about Show Boat actor and civil rights pioneer comes to B.C.

Over the course of his life, Paul Robeson went from being a popular international cinema star to an outspoken civil rights activist, branded as a traitor to his country.

Play runs in New Westminster from Feb. 25 to 28

Paul Robeson was renowned for his performance as the character Joe in director James Whale's Mississippi River 1936 musical 'Show Boat', in which he sang the song 'Ol' Man River.' (John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

Over the course of his life Paul Robeson went from being a popular international cinema star, renowned for his role in the musical Show Boat singing Ol' Man River, to being an outspoken civil rights activist, branded as a traitor to his country.

The play Call Mr. Robeson, running at the Anvil Theatre in New Westminster from Feb. 25 to 28, tells the life story of the late actor and activist, who even caught the attention of the FBI for his pro-Soviet ties and was denied the chance to travel and perform.

"He was as famous, I would argue in his time, as somebody like Michael Jackson was in his time," said Tayo Aluko, a U.K.-based performer who wrote and acts in the one-man play.

Outspoken civil rights activist

"But you never heard Michael Jackson talking about black civil rights or colonialism in Africa or about workers' rights in the United States.

Tayo Aluko performing as Paul Roberson in a performance of his play Call Mr. Robeson at the Carnegie Hall in New York. (Carol Rosegg)

"So somebody who has such a huge audience talking about the kinds of things that the governments didn't really want you to hear, the best place for him was either dead or in jail or just sidelined.

Aluko, who premiered the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 after taking two weeks of acting lessons, said the intent of the play is to highlight Robeson's progressive but largely forgotten political activism.

"I tell the story of him having been a star footballer, a star debater, lawyer, a great actor and singer — but most especially his civil rights and his political activism, not just on behalf of civil rights for black people but on behalf of all oppressed people around the world."

Discovering Robeson

Aluko, who was born in Nigeria and began studying in England at the age of 16, said he was inspired to write a play about Robeson because he only learned about the actor when he himself was an adult.

He said that one day when he was 33, while singing to himself before heading off to work one morning, a woman came up to him and said his singing reminded her of Robeson.

"I stumbled across his biography a few months after that and read it, and was just amazed that there was this man who had been so famous in his time and achieved so much and has been so badly done by, but I didn't know anything about him," Aluko said.

"Not only did I not know anything about him, despite the fact I was supposedly a well-educated black man, a lot of people I knew hadn't heard about him.

"So I decided that was a story that needed to be told."

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: The play Call Mr. Robeson honours the Show Boat actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.