On stage: Tayo Aluko's one-man show 'Call Mr. Robeson' at D.C. Arts Center

British-Nigerian actor Tayo Aluko was in his 30s before he learned about Paul Robeson, an African American who broke many barriers.
British-Nigerian actor Tayo Aluko was in his 30s before he learned about Paul Robeson, an African American who broke many barriers. (Tom Hart)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Though British-Nigerian actor and singer Tayo Aluko has received a good deal of attention for his one-man show "Call Mr. Robeson," he was in his 30s before he had heard of the actor and activist he portrays.

Aluko, 47, says he was singing in Liverpool when "a lady came up to me and said I reminded her of Paul Robeson . . . I didn't know anything about him."

He read up on the pioneering black American actor and singer and immediately became hooked: "It just blew my mind. This amazing guy was effectively buried, erased from history," says Aluko, speaking from England. "Not only was it an injustice to him, it's an injustice to the whole world, because his life story is incredibly inspiring."

"Call Mr. Robeson" arrives at the D.C. Arts Center on Thursday, and in it, Aluko plays out the major events of Robeson's groundbreaking life.

Robeson, the son of a former slave, was first a sports star, then a lawyer and then an internationally known singer and actor. He was the first African American football player on the Rutgers team, then graduated from Columbia Law in the early 1920s, long before the civil rights movement.

Playwright Eugene O'Neill discovered the sometime actor, and from there, Robeson's performing career took off. He won the starring role in "Othello" on Broadway in the 1940s and was the first black actor in an American production to play opposite a white actress. He also made famous a number of spirituals and songs, including "Ol' Man River." (In "Call Mr. Robeson," Aluko sings several of these tunes.)

But when Robeson spoke out against U.S. race policy here and abroad and performed in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, he paid a huge price: He was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had his passport revoked -- a stinging rebuke to a man who had become a cultural diplomat of sorts. Robeson never recovered from the indignity and the damage done to his career, and he struggled with mental illness in his later years. He died in 1976 at age 77.

"I would not dare compare myself to him," says Aluko. "But his outlook on things seems to chime with things I instinctively felt. . . . Reading his story made me understand a lot more about liberal values and about appreciating African history, because he sought to have pride and spread pride in African history among African Americans."

Aluko, a trained architect, has now, like Robeson, left his official profession to focus on performing. So what's next? He is writing a show he's calling "I've Got a Home in Barack."

Call Mr. Robeson D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. 800-838-3006 or http://www.dcartscenter.org. Thursday-Nov. 22 and Nov. 27-Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m.; also Nov. 29 at 3 p.m. $20; DCAC members, $15.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company