The playwright and the producer of "Paul Robeson," the controversial play now at the National Theater, made an impromptu appearance yesterday at a press conference called by critics of the play's depiction of Robeson.
It was a confrontation with all the tension and heightened emotion of a well-wrought stage scene.
"I am as black as anyone in this room," Phillip Hayes Dean, the playwright, angrily told the group just a few minute after the press conference opened.
Standing up and speaking heatedly, Dean added:
"I might not have caught the man as you would like to see him . . . But you have no right to say that I am involved in some kind of a conspiracy to distort Paul Robeson."
The press conference yesterday was called by an ad hoe group that included Paul Robeson Jr. to issue a statement attacking the play as a "pernicious reversion of the essence of Paul Robeson" - even if unintended.
Ronald Walters, a Howard University professor, said the statement, circulated by the Washington D.C. Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson, has been signed by about 50 black figures in the arts, letters and politics.
The statement protests the portrayal of Robeson as a "naive, ignoble giant" and says the members of the black community "have repeatedly seen the giants among us reduced from revolutionary heroic dimensions to manageable sentimentalized size."
The play, which stars James Earl Jones and has a four-week run here on its way to Broadway, is reviving some of the controversy that swirled around Robeson himself in his lifetime.
Critics of the play's script generally have not attacked it as being unsympathetic to Robeson. Rather, their charges focus on what they see as a trivialization of Robeson. And they have been careful not to criticize Jones' performance. Yesterday's statement praised it, saying Jones sometimes "elevates" the play's portrait of Robeson.
In addition to his defense of the play's contents as an artistic work and theater, Don Gregory, the producer, charged that both he and the playwright repeatedly had been denied access to source material in the Robeson archives. Dean, he said, had asked five times and "Robeson (Jr.) refused all five times."
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Maya Angelou, novelist and poet, said yesterday that she had signed the statement because "people live in direct relations to their heroes . . . we must not allow their diminishing. The way we allow them to be depicted is a measure of our lives."
Among the other signers of the statement listed by the Washington committee are poet Nikki Giovanni, Coretta Scott King, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, Julian Bond, playwright Lonne Elder III, author-historian Lerone Bennett Jr., Columbia University Prog. Charles Hamilton and Emma Lewis of the National Center for Afro-American Artists.
In his unscheduled appearance before hostile critics of his play, Dean was joined on center stage by producer Gregory.
Finding themselves in danger of being upstaged by uninvited characters from the production, the press conference leaders asked Gregory and Dean to call their own session if they wanted to say more.
Outside the door to the fifth-floor District Building meeting room, Gregory continued:
"If they don't like it artistically, that's akay. But they're talking politically," he fumed.
The protests, which have followed the play from Louisville to Chicago to Philadelphia to Washington, have not affected attendance, he said, but "have affected me." Gregory said he pulled together the resources and risked his own money for a tribute to Robeson because he "cared."
George Murphy Jr., vice president of the Paul Robeson Friendship Society in Washington, said protests against the play will be "educational," which includes handling out leaflets. Walters, in response to a question on whether a boycott of the play might be called, would say only: "We do not want this play to be any kind of a commercial success.
Robeson Jr., who is 50, said black Americans cannot allow the "co-opting of their heroes . . . for whatever reason, however well-motivated."
This is not the first time that Robeson Jr. has protested efforts to depict his father's life. When NBC and Universal announced a planned bio-drama of Robeson's life shortly after his death in January 1976, for example, Robeson Jr. denounced it, and said he hoped no actor would play his father. He has consistently struck out at what he called "commercial efforts" to exploit his father's memory.
Robeson denied vigorously that the play's representatives had been denied access to Robeson source material. The son, who keeps his father archives in New York, said he could not grant special treatment "to rummage" through the archives but would reproduce requested material as was done for anyone who paid.
Most of the material, he argued, is available in libraries and commercial printings and tapes.
"Dean showed me the first script and it was lousy," Robeson Jr. said. "It had nothing to do with Robeson."
Robeson said he doesn't collaborate with anyone and wasn't going to dothe playwright's research for him.
Lloyd Brown has been working on a Robeson biography. Robeson Jr. said his father wanted Brown to be his biographer, and gave him exclusive access to all his private papers. Under the contractual arrangement, the Robeson estate could share in the profits.
Robeson said the Brown biography - many years in the writing - might be published within a year. He said the family does not have review rights over the material.
Paul Robeson Jr. - the son of a famous, controversial father of imposing talents and stature - was trained as an electrical engineer, and earns his living translating scientific articles from Russian to English.
But his own son is named David, he added with a smile.
"In the third generation, it would be like a dynasty," he smiled. "I was to the manner born as a close associate as well as son to my father. But that is enough."