Monday, January 4, 2010

The World is My Home – The Life & Times of Paul Robeson – by Stogie Kenyatta

by Joe Straw

Imagine yourself in a box theatre. Imagine it is cold and wet, a terrible storm raging just hours before, streets flooded, traffic deserted in some places and bumper-to-bumper in others and yet you get there. Frazzled beyond comprehension you get your tickets and find yourself a nice dry place to sit.

Sit back and let the slow jazz, playing in the background, take you back to the music of the Harlem Renaissance (early 1900’s). Make note of the patrons as they gather their seats. Wait for the lights to dim. An eerie silence welcomes a tall dark figure on stage. Inhale this world as it comes into focus and absorb the infectious energy of this journey about to unfold.

The World is My Home – The Life and Times of Paul Robeson written by Stogie Kenyatta is a highly entertaining play that everyone will enjoy and although it was playing at the Santa Monica Playhouse (sponsored by the Jamaican Cultural Society) for one night, this show is traveling across the country including college campuses everywhere.

Stogie Kenyatta carries an incomprehensible energy in portraying Paul Robeson, an actor, singer, political progressive, and activist. Kenyatta is an exceptional actor who meticulously gives us the life-changing details of Robeson’s life in this magnificent one-man show. It is a touching portrayal of one of America’s finest entertainer and humanitarian that should not be missed.

Kenyatta, the writer, lets us in on Robeson private moments through the course of his career and his life. Through his trials and tribulations, good and bad faults, Kenyatta manages to squeeze this stoic African American’s life in an hour and a half. Not only does he play Robeson from the age of five but also plays a dozen other cast of characters.

The story begins with Robeson’s Dad, William Drew Robeson, a runaway slave who, at the age of fifteen, is hiding in the woods to avoid being captured. He speaks quietly to another runaway slave and tells him that he is looking for Harriet Tubman (the Underground Railway) to help guide him into Pennsylvania. This starts the journey to freedom.

Paul Robeson was the youngest of seven children, only five that survived infancy. And with hardly a care in the world, Robeson, at the age of five, walks into the kitchen while his mother (Louisa Bustill Robeson) bakes him a birthday cake. While waiting, his mother’s dress catches on fire burning over 80 percent of her body. Unable to help his mother put out the fire he agonizes over her lifeless body. She dies a few days later.

It was the strength of his father, the Reverend William Drew Robeson that carried him through his formative years with help from his brothers and sister.

Robeson was an athletic great in high school playing football, basketball, baseball and track and field. That along with his mental dexterity got him admitted to Rutgers University.

As a walk-on athlete on the Rutgers Football team, Robeson is humiliated when the team tries to force him off the roster. Robeson quits until he is forcefully persuaded by his brother Reeve to get his butt back in there. Robeson comes back to practice, plays defense, and lifts the quarterback over his head and keeps him there until the panic stricken coach quietly asks Robeson to put him down, but Robeson holds tight until the coach says he made the team. This is one of Kenyatta’s finest moments.

Robeson became an All American football player and was the valedictorian of his class at Rutgers. Robeson then went to Columbia Law School paying his way by playing professional football and basketball. There he me Eslanda (Essie) Cardozo Goode and after a brief courtship they were married. Robeson put up a good fight to say single but Essie was not having any of that.

After he received his JD, Robeson was an attorney but a non-practicing attorney. His white counterparts thought him unsuitable in front a jury. Relegated to reading briefs and filing papers a Jamaican maid let him know just what she was expecting from him. (A number of Jamaicans in the audience roared with laughter with Kenyatta’s spot on Jamaican accent.)

Robeson walks away from his life as an attorney. After hearing him read a poem, that wonderful deep rich speaking voice, Essie suggested that he become a performer.

Together they embraced the Harlem Renaissance, going to the clubs and meeting with its African American participants, the poets, the writers, the jazz musicians, and the cultural and intellectual elites.

And this was just the start of his entertaining career, which ultimately took him around the globe.

Kenyatta has written a very dramatic story of a man who was both admired and vilified and takes us on that journey with such ease that it’s almost impossible to let go.

Kenyatta, the actor, fills every role with dignity and charm. There are a lot of very fine moments on stage, too numerous to mention. He breathes life into the legend of Paul Robeson and never lets us forget that Robeson was a kind and gentle man with strong beliefs about equality here in the United States and the world.

With Kenyatta's million-dollar smile, Robeson says to the audience "You're some really smart colored folks." Smart to take the journey with him and smart not to miss this play.

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