Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
James Earl Jones "as Paul Robeson," which arrived Monday night at the National, is a welcome change from recent monodramas that have been anything but dramatic. This one-man portrait is theatrical and inspiring, and every once in a while the power of emotional truth wells up between the performer and his audience.
Son of an evidently independent-minded black minister, Robeson was an all-American football player for Rutgers University, a graduate of Columbia University Law School, a world-renowned bass, an actor who triumphed, as few do, as Othello and a man who stood up to that awesome question of the 1950s: "Are you a Communists?"
The framework is the Carnegie Hall stage a few years before Robeson's death, when Robeson did not appear for the dedication of his bust. Between the first scene and the last we trace some of Robeson's adventures in a world that began by telling him in a university cafeteria that "We don't serve colored food."
Act I acquaints us with Robeson's character, his refusal to be downed, his quirky humor and the relative ease with which he seemed to succeed in several professions.
Act II explores how this character reacts to the relative freedom and total acclaim he receives as an artist in Europe. The setback comes in Germany, where he realizes through a dwarf. Maria Schumann, that the Nazi philosophy and tyranny could destroy the world. In Spain he sees how Hitler and Mussolini are using that country, as rehearsal for what is to come. It costs him his upper-crust English friends and causes fellow Americans to assume that he must be a Communist.
In this act the play's author, Phillip Hays Dean, and director Lloyd Richards, who has taken over Charles Nelson Reilly's original staging, still have work to do. There is dramatic punch here but it comes in fits and starts. A steadily rising crescendo will be a dramatic improvement.
Jones could scarcely improve his telling deep performance. Dean's script allows swift, many and varied changes of rhythm, mood and spirit, and jones grabs them with avid appetite. A chair on stage serves him as luggage in a streetcar. He places one for the pianist-dwarf to sit on and we see her through his face. Recalling student and early legal days, he slyly takes us into his confidence on his real feelings, sometimes different from what he is saying.
He uses the structure of the work to enrich Robeson's maturing character. A notable aspect of the structure is that less than half the time is spent in addressing only the audience. Dean has arranged other characters, invisible, to recreate such scenes as a law office, a Harlem night club, a London party, a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in Washington.
With Burt Wallace as a pianist who sometimes also sings and moves at accommodating moments, this one-character work does have its supporting cast.
But, thanks to Jones, his superb voice and his personal magnetism, it is Robeson who shines through as a staunch, understanding, heroic American. The times were tragic but he was inspiring.