Written By: Ed Rampell http://www.losangelesjournal.
The first act of Speak Of Me As I Am tells much of Robeson’s story through film clips, songs performed live accompanied by a pianist and cellist and most of all by Solomon’s commanding presence. We see how Robeson went from all-American to “un-American,” the star of stage, screen and concert hall’s annual salary of $100,000 reduced to $2,000 per year when he was blacklisted during the HUAC-McCarthy era. Accused of being a Communist, Robeson was denied the right to perform at home, and his passport was seized by the State Department, preventing the internationally acclaimed celebrity from accepting the numerous gigs he was offered abroad. Although the play doesn’t mention it, one of Robeson’s greatest “crimes” was declaring during the Cold War that African-Americans wouldn’t fight for the USA against the Soviet Union, about 20 years before another Black activist, Muhammad Ali, refused to serve in Vietnam because no Viet Cong had ever called him the N-word.
Robeson died in the 1970s, and for today’s generation, the closest they’ll come to “meeting” this extraordinary man is through this show written and produced by Solomon and Krys Howard. Solomon’s performance is a marvel not to be missed. The towering basso profundo opera singer has the icon’s stature, mannerisms and smile down, and his mellifluous voice is a delight that sometimes had the audience singing along to numbers such as I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night. Deftly cutting from the spoken to the sung word to tell Robeson’s saga, Solomon’s renditions of classics like Porgy’s Plenty of Nothing, The House I Live In, Danny Boy and but of course, Robeson’s signature tune, Old Man River, shall have you tapping your tootsies and perhaps tearing up, as your inner self is transported heavenward. It’s almost as if this life force, who tirelessly stood up for the “little people” against injustice, has come back to life.
Indeed, this is the premise of Speak Of Me As I Am – Robeson returns from heaven (where Solomon wittily observes he can’t find J. Edgar Hoover or Joe McCarthy) to tell his story. In particular, Robeson seeks to redeem himself against charges that he was unpatriotic, insisting that he was a real American in the revolutionary tradition of 1776, fighting for truth, justice and the democratic way. The play glosses over Robeson’s relationship with the Communist Party and Soviet Union, which he was accused of being a stooge of. Indeed, during a visit to the USSR Robeson did confront the Stalinists over the imprisonment of an artist or intellectual, whom I believe was Jewish.
This incident is powerful ammunition against those who denigrate Robeson as a Stalin apologist, and could be incorporated into act II. In this much shorter second act, which seems to be a work in progress, the modern day Robeson comments on today’s recession and the election of America’s first Black president.
I called Speak Of Me As I Am a one-man show, but in fact the play makes clever use of an enchained Black mannequin onstage, so that at times it almost feels like a cast of two. Photos of famous radicals and infamous reactionaries, from Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas and John Brown to Hoover, McCarthy and Harry Truman, also decorate the set and are also put to good use.
Speak Of Me As I Am joins the illustrious company of Che, Milk and Frost/Nixon, as well as the play Marx in Soho by the people’s historian, Howard Zinn, as a work of art that brings great personalities and issues vividly back to life. This is one of the greatest things art can do. By the end of Speak Of Me As I Am, you too will feel that Robeson and Solomon have got the whole wide world in their hands. Don’t miss this life affirming theatrical experience, which will be performed from time to time in 2009 as Solomon and Howard seek to bring Robeson’s thrilling story to a theatre near you.
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