What are we without passion, the kind that burns so deeply and vividly inside us that we are defenseless before its power? This is the emotion that drove Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to have a dream and Charles Darwin to say I disagree, and it assured their immortality. Paul Robeson also knew what passion was, and playwright Miriam Jensen Hendrix and the Actors Stock Company take a close look at his life and passions with considerable success in Robeson. In the mid-1930's, Robeson was a prominent entertainer, garnering raves for his portrayal of Othello in London and his role in Showboat on Broadway, along with countless concert engagements throughout Europe. The play begins as Robeson (Ezra Knight) is returning to the States after many years of living abroad. Upon his arrival, he is greeted by a group of reporters, and he is eager to discuss the freedoms his race enjoys throughout the world, especially in the Soviet Union, which he believes should be a social model for America.
Despite pleas from friends and family to tone down his rhetoric, Robeson presses on, speaking at rallies and openly sharing his viewpoints with the press. As time passes, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union turns the American people against him, leading to an impassioned showdown.
With a booming baritone, Knight delivers a superb performance. An impeccable stage presence with the appropriate bravado, he is easily believed as a man on a mission. Equally compelling is Bruce Kronenberg as Joe McCarthy, conveying the Communist-hunting senator's unwavering convictions with such ease, he transports us to a different America.
Rounding out the cast as Ben Robeson, Ronald Wyche turns in a sensitive performance as a brother determined to steer his sibling in a less controversial direction. A special commendation should also go to Vince Phillip, Roy Bacon, and John Marino. These actors, each taking on multiple roles, make their transitions with remarkable ease and pitch-perfect clarity.
Director Keith Onacle elicits fully developed characters from most of the cast, who never cross over to caricature. He guides us through the dramatic periods of Robeson's life, from his first political rally to his days of hiding from F.B.I. surveillance, most notably pinpointing the precise moment when Robeson shifted from man to idea. As he stands before the House Un-American Activities Committee, bombarded by accusations, it is clear that the truth is no longer a concern; he is Communism incarnate. These moments are heightened thanks to Gregory Tippit's multileveled set, which is primarily in shades of gray, a nice symbol of the uncertainty of the times.
Hendrix has provided an informative portrait of this trailblazer. However, the piece does falter when it strives to educate rather then enlighten, resulting in a somewhat cold emotional center. In these moments, we find ourselves disconnected from the play, hearing but not truly listening. Another device that detracts rather then adds to the production is the use of a movie screen. Though videographer Shawn Washburn captures some haunting images, they ultimately prove distracting.
Overall, Robeson is a thought-provoking look at a disturbing time in American history. You will leave the theater wondering if any of the accused citizens were truly Communists or instead victims of a paranoid government. But you will probably fail to be moved. The play never quite penetrates any deeper than on an intellectual level, which is unfortunate, given that this man's beacon was his heart.