WILKES-BARRE — A tribute to an American Renaissance man by a singer and peace ambassador who bears many similarities to the show’s namesake is coming to the F.M. Kirby Center.
“I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson’s Life in his own Words & Song” is scheduled for 8 p.m. Feb. 10 as the first show in the Lobby for the Arts series at the Public Square theater. Baritone and citizen of the world Anthony Brown tells Robeson’s story in a multi-media production that combines documentary footage, live music and spoken word.
Robeson was a graduate of Columbia Law School and Rutger’s University, where he was an all-American athlete and scholar. He worked as an attorney before using his abilities as a bass singer and orator to become an internationally known recording artist and actor of stage and screen.
Robeson was critically acclaimed for his roles in “Show Boat” and “Othello,” and his original arrangements of songs like “Ol’ Man River” have been reference points for actors who came after him.
The production, written by playwright Andrew Flack, features musical performances of Broadway numbers and African-American folks songs including “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Wade In the Water,” narration, recitals from Robeson’s autobiography, “Here I Stand,” and video footage of folk singer and activist Pete Seeger remembering Robeson.
It was Robeson’s support for human rights, as he traveled the world as an entertainer, that left his most indelible mark.
Robeson spoke out for civil liberties in America as early as the 1930s, but he also supported underpaid, overworked Welsh coal miners during his time in the United Kingdom in the 1920s and spoke out against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.
Seeger “goes into great detail talking about the Peekskill (New York) riots, which really put Paul Robeson’s life at risk,” Brown said.
For his social ties to people in the Soviet Union, Robeson was blacklisted during the American era of anti-communist McCarthyism in the 1950s, and many of his efforts went unrecognized.
“He’s a forgotten 20th century hero,” Brown said. “I thought, ‘somebody needs to bring him back.’”
Brown said he grew up listening to Robeson’s music, played by his parents who spoke fondly and respectfully of Robeson.
“I think they were impressed by his singing but also by his intellectual capacity and by his advocating for the rights of the marginalized and the dispossessed,” Brown said.
Brown, an acclaimed singer and interpreter of African-American spirituals, has also championed peace and social justice in various parts of the world including Africa, Asia and South America.
“My own psychological and emotional development created an interest in others and the use of music beyond just entertainment,” Brown said. “More and more I do it for other reasons, to try to connect people and to try to be a force for good will.”
Robeson, who spoke numerous languages and found commonality with folks everywhere he traveled, was bold enough to do such work before the advent of civil rights in many countries, including America.
“He wanted to galvanize people, and he was an outspoken patriot,” Brown said. “He gave his life to working toward the common good for humanity. I want people to know who he is, particularly younger people.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.