Andrew Flack on I Go on Singing: Paul Robeson's Life in His Words and Songs
"What do you know about Paul Robeson?" internationally renowned baritone Anthony Brown asked writer Andrew Flack a few years back. "I know a little, but show me your notes," Flack responded. It was New Year's Eve, and the two men began talking about Robeson's life, his music, his political struggles and how he was taken down by the powers-that-be. "Maybe we could work together to make a piece," Flack said, signing on to script the project. The result, I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson's Life in His Words and Songs, directed by donnie l. betts and starring Brown, opens Friday, February 28, at the Aurora Fox Arts Center. Westword recently spoke with Flack about Robeson's legacy and writing the script for the production.
Director donnie l. betts, pianist Jodel Charles and baritone Anthony Brown.
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Westword: Talk about why you were interested in working on a project about Paul Robeson.
Andrew Flack: Robeson's really inspiring. Tony Brown, the fellow who commissioned me to write this piece, said, growing up in Pittsburgh, his parents had a lot of 78 records around the house, and that's how he learned of Paul Robeson. His parents would speak of this man, this singer, whom they'd never met, in such a reverential way. They spoke of him as this bigger-than-life man, which fascinated Tony, because there weren't that many African American role-models you could say that about.
We're lucky to be telling this story. Because Robeson's legacy has been neutralized, a lot of people don't know about him. People who leave our shows, they say, "Oh, my gosh. I had no idea who this guy was, what he represented and what he became. He was an unbelievable guy, and he got hammered by the powers-that-be."
What was his story?
Paul Robeson was a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. In the 1920s and 1930s, he put his life, his career, everything on the line to champion human rights all around the world. He traveled extensively; he sang for the workers. In this country, he was part of the civil rights movement. He is a forgotten hero, and they tried to erase him, and when I say "they," I mean the powers-that-be, the right-wing elite, the Joseph McCarthys and the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world. They demonized him and tried to erase him from American history.
Robeson was the valedictorian of Rutgers University class of 1919. He was one of only three African-American students there. He was All American in football twice and played professional football before the NFL. After Rutgers, he got his law degree at Columbia in the early '20s. Then he tried to go to work, and he had an incident. His secretary, in this New York law firm, said I'm not going to take shorthand from an n-word guy. Robeson was good-looking and talented as a singer and an actor. In the '30s, he went on to be the first African-American to play Othello on Broadway. He got unbelievable reviews. In 1936, he was in the movie Showboat. "Old Man River" became a song that would be forever his; that was his signature song.
How did World War II play into Robeson's career?
In the 1930s, fascism was on the rise. Mussolini and Hitler were coming to power, and Robeson was an antifascist. He went to Spain and sang for the troops that were fighting Franco, the fascist dictator. He went to Wales and sang for the coal miners who were not being paid at all. He was a man of the people. When Hitler came to power, Robeson supported the U.S. war movement. He sold hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of war bonds. Then 1949 came. The government started tapping his phone. Here he was, a black man and an intellectual on the people's side, a populace guy. In 1949, it all came down. McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover accused him of being a communist. He claimed he had never been a Communist; he was a socialist for sure, but not a communist, but that didn't matter. He was blacklisted. The pressure was put on radio and TV stations not to have him on. Then the government took his passport. For eight years, he was held hostage in this country. He couldn't sing. He couldn't make a living.
Read on to find out how Robeson may have been drugged by the CIA and how Flack approached writing the script.