“Take ‘Old Man River,’” said Tayo Aluko, talking about the signature tune of the great singer, actor and activist for human rights, Paul Robeson, whom he portrays in his one man show, Call Mr. Robeson, at downtown San Francisco’s Phoenix Theatre this weekend. “The lyrics in that song are very profound in terms of Robeson himself. ‘He just keeps rollin’ along,’ yes; his memory survives. Then after saying Old Man River doesn’t plant the crops, ‘them that plants them is soon forgotten.’ ... Paul Robeson can still inspire people to shout out his name and the names of the forgotten, to know they’re not alone.”
Aluko was born in Nigeria, where he first sang in primary school choirs and went to boarding school in Britain at 16, then studied architecture, “which I still practice professionally ... Singing, like acting as an amateur, I love too much to do professionally. But since discovering Mr. Robeson, it’s the one thing that could make me professional for awhile. Now it’s 80 percent of my time on Robeson, 20 percent on architecture—which’s fine, because I work for myself.”
Living in Liverpool, Aluko, a baritone, has sung “with a number of orchestras, music societies, choirs and brass bands in the U.K., Germany, Ireland and Nigeria ... and lead roles in various operas and stage musicals,” according to a brief bio on the African American Art Song Alliance website, which also mentions his productions of music by Ellington and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, classical music by African composers and successful charity concerts, plays (The Amber Chronicles, by black writers) and play readings.
He discovered Robeson while singing in a 1995 Liverpool fundraiser, “My Lord, What A Morning”—“a dawn chorus for summer solistice.” Afterwards, a woman came up to him and asked if he sang any Paul Robeson songs. “I must have said, ‘I think I’ve heard the name,’ then happened on his biography by Martin Duberman in the library a month later. I finally finished it at noon Christmas morning. I was blown away by the story, both inspirational and tragic in nature. And I was amazed, after three university degrees, to be ignorant of the man.”
Aluko was determined “to make sure the story was told. I found someone to write the story; actually two people, writing at the same time. It took three years, and didn’t work out. I was never happy. I didn’t know then that I was a writer.”
Finally, Aluko “had a go myself, about three years ago.” In earlier drafts, he conceived of a partly fictional drama, with other characters, before settling on a solo show. But he says he’d like to get back to that idea, “a bigger piece, with quite a big cast. I don’t know whether it’ll be me writing that. Maybe it’ll be a film as well.”
Aluko spoke about how Robeson’s “life and interests were so profound and so varied. Especially concerning Africa. There’s so much that’s communal between Africa, Europe and America—the slave trade, of course, but also before and since; descendents and ancestry. It’s interesting that an African American could introduce me as a modern African to pride in African ancestry, wanting to be connected. It’s humbling in a way to come here, to his home country, and perform him. It’s amazing that it started with me singing one day in Liverpool 13 years ago, and someone asking me a brief, innocent question.”
Aluko mentions “one thing that drives me, that so many people think of the Civil Rights Movement starting with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. That was an admirable thing, Robeson always paying tribute to those who came before. Maybe eventually I’ll bring them into the play, have Robeson talk about them in England at the end of his career. Instead of performing in mainstream theaters, I’d be quite happy to play in colleges and universities. I’d like to reach that audience in particular. The occasions that young people have been in the audience, they’ve invariably been touched, inspired. That filled me with a lot of hope.”
Friday’s performance is a pay-what-you-can benefit for Mumia Abu-Jamal. “It’s just the kind of thing Robeson would have done,” said Aluko. “’Standing up for justice where overdue.’ It was suggested to me by Jack Heyman, associated with the ILWU. I was referred to Jack and Carol Heyman by an activist in Liverpool, and they put me up when I came here in April, just because of Paul Robeson.”
Asked what perspective he seeks to give on Robeson, Aluko quoted the lines from Othello’s final speech, which serve as epigraph for Duberman’s biography: “’Soft you, a word or two before you go./I have done the state some service, and they know’t./No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,/When you shall these unhealthy deeds relate,/Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice,” he said, adding, “Not just the state—the world.”
In 2001, he said he started to believe that ancestors were at work around him.
“Coming here to play Paul Robeson, to make my contribution to reviving his name, is an exchange of gifts,” Aluko said. “He was a great gift to me, one to be shared with everybody.”
CALL MR. ROBESON
Written and performed by Tayo Aluko. Directed by Olusola Oyeleye. Designed by Phil Newman. Piano accompaniment by Richard Thompson.
5 p. m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St. (sixth floor) at Geary, San Francisco. Friday’s performance is a benefit; donate what you will. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday shows are $15-20.