September 17, 2008

O’Neill Play ‘All God’s Chillun’ Part of Festival’s Tribute of Paul Robeson

By Pat Craig

Hearing Paul Robeson's son's voice over the telephone immediately conjures memories of the legendary singer and actor.

The voice is deep, rich and resonant, little like an 81-year-old man whose health prevents him from coming to Danville on Thursday to receive the Eugene O'Neill Foundation's Tao House Award on behalf of his late father.

"I was very pleased; pleased for my father, it's great honor for his legacy," said Paul Robeson Jr. on the phone from his home in New York. "It's just wonderful piece of news, because the O'Neill plays and (Robeson's) relationship with Eugene O'Neill really was one of the most important things in his whole subsequent career."

The award will be part of a long weekend of festivities in Danville beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Village Theatre with the presentation (to be accepted for Robeson by Bay Area television personality Belva Davis), and then a production of "All God's Chillun Got Wings," one of two O'Neill plays Robeson starred in.

The play will also be performed at Danville's Village Theatre, 233 Front St., at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. During the '20s, Robeson performed O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings" and "The Emperor Jones" in repertory, Robeson Jr. said.

"All God's Chillun Got Wings" is the story of a lifelong relationship between a black man and a white woman who eventually marry (after she is deserted by the father of her child), and face a difficult future of racism and dementia.

"The (O'Neill) plays, at least in my view, represented the black image from a clearly human aspect, with dignity and humanity, despite some of the stereotypical images of the time," Robeson Jr. said. "This enabled my dad to shift the image of black people in art from dehumanizing characterizations to real, human characters. My dad said as much at the time in a couple of essays he wrote. He said the plays were a fundamental part of the foundation of his subsequent career and also in his ability to influence popular culture for the better."

Now, Robeson is probably best known as a singer. His recorded version of "Ol' Man River" and his work on the stage and in opera made him an American legend -- despite his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which branded him a Communist and eventually led to his passport being lifted for nearly a decade.

Robeson, however, was probably more proud of his achievements as an actor, his son said.

"In his retirement, he said if he was to be remembered for one thing, it would be as an actor," he said. "He felt he had been given a prodigious gift as a singer, but with acting, he had to learn that from scratch; he had to become a craftsperson,"

When he was preparing for a role, Robeson would often read about the culture and customs of the era in which the character lived, and at times would read the script in several languages in search of nuance.

His son remembers when Robeson was preparing to play Othello that his father read translations of the Shakespeare script in several languages, finally finding a new approach to a line in the Russian translation.

And, in performance, the actor was far more than just dad up on the stage.

"It was my father, yes, but in many ways, it was just like being any audience member," Robeson Jr. recalled. "I think he created a spell onstage and you were just another spectator. I did get to ask him afterward what he was thinking about, though."

He said he wasn't the least bit tempted to follow his father into show business. He felt he didn't have the same gifts as his father, and, more importantly, he wasn't willing to pay the toll of living a public life.

"I saw the price he paid for that," he said. "I did see him as Othello and it was quite remarkable. He used his speaking voice, which was extraordinary.

"Because he was a singer, he could control his breathing and use a range of vocal effects. No actor could command the stage the way he did. He could even do it being virtually motionless."

Robeson Jr. was neither encouraged nor discouraged from a career in performance by his dad.

"He said, 'If you do it, welcome to the club; just leave Othello and 'Ol' Man River' to me,'" he said. "He told me not to try to be somebody else, but to be me. He was very much a dad at home, though - - he wasn't waiting for me to sing my first song or anything like that."

Robeson Jr. was in his 20s when his father was blacklisted, and supported him fully.

"I was a radical quite on my own," he said.

His career took him into audio engineering and translation, mostly of technical journals and other materials from Russian.

Later, he became a writer and journalist, continued his freelance translating, and opened a technical publishing firm with two partners.

And at one point, he told his father how to sing -- sort of.

"I either recorded or produced most of the recordings he made back in the '50s," he said. "And one time when he was singing, he got a little off and I told him. He listened to the recording and agreed. He recognized I knew what I was talking about."

Reach Pat Craig at [email protected] Preview-- WHAT: Eugene O'Neill Festival honors Paul Robeson-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by performance of "All God's Chillun Got Wings"; additional performances of the play are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday-- WHERE: Village Theatre, 233 Front St., Danville-- TICKETS: $30; 925- 820-1818,

In addition to the production of "All God's Chillun Got Wings," other O'Neill Festival event include:-- A PAUL ROBESON EXHIBITION: 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday at Pioneer Art Gallery, 524 Hartz Ave.-- OPEN HOUSE AT TAO HOUSE, the Eugene O'Neill National Historical Site in Danville, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.. Meet at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, 205 Railroad Ave.-- "THE EMPEROR JONES," 1933 film, will be screened at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Village Theatre.-- "O'NEILL 101," a presentation, is 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Danville Town Meeting Hall, 201 Front St. Includes an overview on O'Neill and his impact on the American theater by Dan Cawthon, actor, teacher and O'Neill scholar. -- WALKING TOUR OF DOWNTOWN DANVILLE, 10 a.m. Saturday, starting at the O'Neill Commemorative at Front Street Park, 400 Front St.

Originally published by Pat Craig, Contra Costa Times.

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