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Paul Robeson: Songs, Movies & Plays

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever heard the song ''Ol' Man River''? Did you know it was made famous by one of the most accomplished African-American performers in the 20th century? In this lesson, explore some of the movies, songs and plays performed by Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson the Performer

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African American actor, singer and human rights campaigner. Multitalented and intellectual, he was valedictorian of his class at Rutgers in 1919, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a star athlete. Robeson graduated from Columbia Law School but went into performing arts instead, where his deep bass-baritone voice and commanding physical presence made him a star in London and later in America.

Portrait of Paul Robeson
Portrait of Paul Robeson

Songs

If one song was connected to Paul Robeson more than any other it was 'Ol' Man River', a powerful lament about toil and work along the Mississippi River, written for the Jerome Kern musical Show Boat. The song is sung by a stevedore (a dock worker) named Joe who watches and reflects on the activity along the river. Although he wasn't the first to sing it, Robeson's voice and presence lent the song increased power and it became a signature piece. He performed in on stage, in film, and on popular records. Later in his life, he would change some of the words when singing in recital settings, removing racial stereotypes and making it more about struggle and perseverance.

Robson also performed concerts of African-American spirituals and American folk songs. Acclaimed recitals in 1924 in Boston and 1925 in Greenwich Village in New York City further boosted his stature, and songs like 'Go Down Moses' and 'Ezekiel Saw the Wheel' were part of his standard repertoire. He also became know for songs like 'John Brown's Body' and 'Joe Hill', the latter a ballad about the life and legacy of a union organizer. These songs and spirituals spoke to Robeson. They were songs of the underdog enduring trials while trying to create a more just society and they addressed issues close to his heart. As an accomplished black man living in a time of severe prejudice and segregation, he was constantly challenging stereotypes.

Stage Work in London and New York

Robeson catapulted to fame in the lead of the 1924 revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. It told the story of a Pullman porter (a worker on a passenger train) who rises to become a powerful but corrupt ruler in Haiti. One of the first American plays with an African-American lead, Robeson was largely unknown when O'Neill cast him. Robeson later starred in the role on the London stage and in the movie version. Robeson also stared in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chilun Got Wings, a controversial play that featured an interracial couple.

Robeson starred in the London stage premiere of Show Boat in 1929 and later in an acclaimed 1932 revival on Broadway. But perhaps the stage role most associated with Robeson was William Shakespeare's powerful, doomed Othello, the Moor leader of a Venetian army (moor was a term once used to describe a person of Arabian descent from the Iberian peninsula, someone who would have been dark-skinned). Robeson first performed Othello in London in 1930, when he couldn't have done the role in America because it featured an interracial kiss. He finally brought the role to Broadway in 1943. It became a smashing success, and remains the longest running dramatic play in Broadway history.

Image from stage performance of Othello on Broadway in 1943 with Paul Robeson
Image from 1943 Broadway Othello with Paul Robeson

Movies

Robeson also acted in movies. His first film, Body and Soul, was a 1924 silent race film by African-American director Oscar Micheaux. In an age when segregation was the norm, race films were made for African-American audiences who were forbidden from mixing with white people in theaters.

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