By Charles Hallman
A musical play on the legendary Paul Robeson will be at the Capri Theater this weekend June 20-22.
Jason McKinney stars as Robeson, the multi-faceted actor and singer who spoke against injustice both in the U.S. and abroad, and Christopher Bagley plays Lawrence Brown, Robeson’s long-time collaborator in “A Play Based on the Life of Paul Robeson,” a two-man production that is scheduled to appear in several cities this year.
Robeson, was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey the youngest of five children, and later would attend Rutgers University at age 17 and won multiple letters in baseball, football, basketball and track. He graduated as class valedictorian, then went to Columbia Law School and worked in the early 1920s as a lawyer in New York.
However, he left the law profession because of racism at the firm he worked and became a successful singer and actor on stage and screen.
“I grew up with Paul Robeson as one of my heroes,” admits Bagley last week during an MSR phone interview. Despite learning about other Black notables in school, “But for some reason, Paul Robeson was never mentioned in my education,” he recalls.
The late Phillip Hayes Dean, who died on April 14 of this year, wrote the play that was first presented in the late 1970s with James Earl Jones in the leading role. Avery Brooks also played Robeson on Broadway when the play twice ran in 1988 and 1995. During that run is when Bagley, who studied acting in college, first saw the play and learned about Brown, he points out.
Brown was a renowned arranger in Europe when he met Robeson during the 1920s, says Bagley. “I think the two of them were such a partnership — I really think Lawrence Brown’s professionalism [elevated] Paul’s concerts,” he believes, who adds that “the [on-stage] relationship between Jason and I” hopefully gives play goers that same sense of the Robeson-Brown partnership when the two men worked together. “He [Brown] was willing to let Paul be Paul, and to let Jason be Jason in playing this role. He really does embody Paul Robeson. And one of the things I try to do is to almost make myself invisible in every sense of the word. I try not to have a focus [on the character].”
Bagley, who has managerial experience in non-profits, has acted on stage since he was 20 years old but in a part-time vocation, and starting acting on a full time basis nearly ten years ago. “It is something that I enjoy. After meeting Jason when we did a concert about three years ago, I decided to do this full time, [so I] left my job in Baltimore and came down here to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.”
Bagley and McKinney co-founded United in Music about two years ago, and are producing and presenting the current reincarnation of the Robeson production as part of a three-city Midwestern run, which kicks off in Minneapolis, then heads to Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin this summer. “We’ll be in New York in September, then Memphis, Tennessee in October,” he says. “We also do a concert version where we take elements of the show and do this as well.”
A play based on the life of Paul Robeson “sheds light on the life of this courageous, influential and complex man whose message remains relevant for today’s audiences.”
“It is my contention that in the history of the United States, no person Black or White — you can throw in people like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin but as an actor, scholar and as an athlete; as a lawyer, as a civil rights activist, nobody did more things excellently but because of the Red scare at home and McCarthyism, he was erased from the landscape of America,” concludes Bagley of Robeson.
Tickets for A Play Based on the Life of Paul Robeson are on sale now on line at http://thecapritheater.org and are $25 for general admission seating.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]