Two points have been forcefully made about "Paul Robeson," the play about the black athlete-lawyer-singer-actor-rights leader.
1. James Earl Jones brings the character vibrantly to life at the National Theater.
2. It is a trivialization of Robeson.
Both are true.
Jones contributes such strength and subtlety to his characterization that he evokes a tremendous emotional involvement with Robeson as a person as well as Robeson as moral leader. His acting is so good that one can almost forgive him his singing - his rich speaking voice is pleasant in song, but no represention of a world-reowned singer.
The facts of Robeson's life are so compellingly interesting, that one can - again, almost - forgive the clumsiness with which Phillip Hayes Dean's play is constructed. The one-person play - although Burt Wallace contributes elegance and tone as Robeson's accompanist - is a kind of People Magazine of the boards. This one seems particularly unable to cope with the technical difficulties: Nearly every speech of Robeson's in which there is also an unseen character begins with his saying, "What?" and follows with his having to repeat the unheard question as if he were dense of mind or hard of hearing.
But it is simply bad writing that trivializes Robeson, in spite of Jones' heroic efforts. When Robeson's father dies, Dean has him saying, "Pop, why did you have to go and die? I'm All-American now." When he speaks of the effect of war on young men of his generation, he, whom we have seen literally nearly killed by white classmates at Rutgers, announces, "We were too protected by the walls of academe." At the grave of the murdered poet Garcia Lorca, he says, "One day flowers will bloom again, Frederico."
If he talks like that, we begin to think, he's not the scholar and social philosopher they claim he is. But Robeson didn't talk like that, as is evident when he tells the House Un-American Activities Committee what he believes in. That is taken from transcribed testimony, and is beautifully eloquent.
The play concludes with its being said that he "loved unwisely but too well." However cute a tie-in with his famous Othello, this is a perversion of what Robeson represents. What did he love unwisely, justice? His position was more clearly made in a scene in which he is barred from the college choir for having "a pitch problem" and it is the entire choir, not he, who has the pitch problem. It was the world, not Robeson, that suffered from lack of wisdom when it failed to listen to him.