KINDRED SPIRITS: Aluko with Barbara Blake-Hannah.
Call Mr. Robeson: A Life with Songs
Director: Olusola Oyeleye
Performer: Tayo Aluko
Venue: Vera Moody Hall, Edna Manley College
Under the vivid stage lights of the Vera Moody Concert Hall at the Edna Manley College, Tayo Aluko doesn’t attempt to offer an impersonation of Paul Robeson, instead the Nigerian-born artist compelling embodies the late African-American actor/singer/activist with a robust, natural performance that commands attention and deservedly gets it. Pulling off a 90-minute one-man show is daunting enough, but when a performer is charged with the task of portraying a real-life iconic figure, and sustaining the conviction, the challenge becomes that much more frightening.
That is not the case, however, with Aluko’s acclaimed Call Mr. Robeson: A Life with Songs, a well-done production loosely based on Robeson’s eventful life and remarkable work. The show played at Edna Manley on the weekend under the auspices of the United States Embassy, in the presence of Governor-General, Sir Patrick Allen, and Lady Allen.
Attired in a sharply tailored grey suit and working with a pianist, some memorabilia, and few additional props, Aluko amazingly makes light work of the mammoth undertaking set before him.
Replete with Black history and musicology while engendering an appreciation for stagecraft, the piece allows the viewer to accompany Robeson on a sojourn of life-changing proportions through Europe and get a deeper understanding of the man and his motivations and what precipitated the hellish experiences he encountered in 1950s Jim Crow America and at the subsequent dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an eye-opening, often thought-provoking, compendium of the wisdom and heroics of a great man, made all the more riveting by Aluko’s totally committed performance.
Paying homage to Robeson’s multilayered approach to the arts and his outspoken brand of civil rights activism, Call Mr. Robeson finds Aluko winning the audience over, not only with strong, capable singing (mostly stirring Negro spirituals) and sturdy acting, but with deep reserves of intelligence and a wide-eyed fervour that keeps the performance afloat even when the production hits a momentary lull.
Though Call Mr. Robeson regularly traverses in uncomfortable subject matter (racial segregation, prejudice, oppression, struggle), it illuminates an eventful life with a buoyancy that comes in large part due to Aluko’s silken charisma, booming baritone, and the inspirational story that’s nestled at the core of the whole thing. Tyrone’s Verdict: A-