Citizenship: Let Paul Robeson Sing!

26th October 2001 at 01:00

Covent Garden's Theatre Museum, which has just launched an exhibition on the life and times of the great black American singer Paul Robeson, has devised a programme of exhibition tours, workshops and a teacher's pack to make citizenship come alive.

If a single figure from the English-speaking world of 20th-century theatre symbolises citizenship - standing up for the oppressed - it is Robeson.

The son of a former slave, he dazzled, inspired and outraged his fellow Americans. As the exhibition and accompanying pack illustrate, Robeson was a star before he ever set foot on a stage.

A gifted student and sportsman, he grew up in New Jersey which, while not segregated, was sufficiently entrenched in racism for one of his teachers to comment later: "He is the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince. Still, I can't forget that he is a Negro."

He landed a scholarship to the prestigious Rutgers College in 1915, at a time when scholarships to black students were virtually unheard of, and went on to graduate with top academic and sporting honours.

Robeson took a law degree at Columbia University in New York City but soon after joining a law firm saw that prejudice would always keep him back. It didn't take much to persuade him to embark on an acting career.

Over the next 30 years, he starred with the greatest actors of his generation and at the same time pursued a successful singing career.

The growth of his political consciousness kept pace with his artistic development. He was the first black singer to refuse to sing to segregated audiences in the US. As well as being an increasingly vocal campaigner for civil rights at home, he widened his vision to embrace international socialism: he supported striking Welsh miners and Spanish republicans in the civil war, and admired the Soviet Union.

It was his strong links with Russia in particular, at the height of the Cold War, that led to his fall from grace in the US. His passport was withdrawn, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his records were withdrawn from sale and his concerts cancelled.

In the early 1960s, he retired and withdrew from public life, dispirited, disillusioned and demoralised. Despite his political naivety and the consequent derailment of his career, the enduring image of Robeson as magnificent actor, singer and champion of international human rights remains potent to this day.

Let Paul Robeson Sing! runs until autumn 2002 at the Theatre Museum, 1e Tavistock Street, London WC2. For school tour and workshop bookings, tel: 020 7943 4806

  • Picture: Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft in a 1930 production of Othello
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazinenbsp;

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