Review: ‘Robeson’ Illuminates a Titanic Artist and Activist

“God gave me the voice that people want to hear,” Paul Robeson, the great African American singer, actor and activist, told the Black newspaper “The New York Age” in a 1949 interview.

Aware of his powers and obliged by his influence, Robeson inserted himself into an incredibly fraught moment in American history. His powerful advocacy for the rights of Black and working-class Americans made him a hero, but his political leanings put him at odds with the prevailing anti-Communist forces in Congress, which eventually impeded his career. Robeson’s fame was global, however, and he had plenty of opportunities abroad — until his U.S. passport was revoked because he would not disavow membership in the Communist Party in writing. He landed before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956, and although he was unafraid of being a lightning rod, he was wearied by it, too.

Today, the legacy of Robeson’s divine bass-baritone voice and its oratorial capaciousness has outlasted the political tarring and feathering. There is no contemporary analogue for Robeson, an artist in a classical medium who became a household name and leveraged his fame to drive a public conversation around peace and justice. (Yo-Yo Ma, the beloved cellist who created the multicultural Silk Road Project, arguably comes closest, but without the controversy.)

Davóne Tines, a bass-baritone himself, pays tribute to that legacy in “Robeson,” a new one-man show at the Amph on Little Island that weaves together snippets of Robeson’s words with songs associated with him. On Friday night, the straightforward appeal of a popular-song recital collided with oblique, fractured references to Robeson’s life, cracking open a fictionalized glimpse into the emotional turmoil of a man who was seen as an impenetrable “titan,” as Tines put it. It was a vigorously played, at times frustrating show, carried aloft by Tines’s fiery assurance.

Initially, the show’s structure seemed transparent enough. Tines’s renditions of songs like the labor anthem “Joe Hill,” which he delivered with confident smoothness, were interspersed with Robeson’s words from newspaper editorials, television interviews and onstage remarks. Dressed in a Carnegie Hall-ready tuxedo, Tines began with an admirable, if a bit woolly, vocal impersonation of the era-defining singer, emphasizing a deep well of sound.

But for an artist like Tines, with a collaborator like the director Zack Winokur, with whom he conceived the piece, straightforwardness is a feint. The two artists, abetted by the designers Adam Charlap Hyman (sets) and Mary Ellen Stebbins (lighting) and the versatile instrumentalists John Bitoy and Khari Lucas, exploded their gentle re-enactment to explore the inner struggle of a man known for equanimity. A deftly executed staging of Robeson’s reported suicide attempt in a Moscow hotel room, set to a disturbing a cappella version of “Some Enchanted Evening,” plunged the audience and performers into the show’s paroxysmal heart.

Belittling voices plagued Tines’s Robeson: The congressional panel at his HUAC hearing (“Did you make a little speech?”) and Jackie Robinson’s restrained yet cutting criticism (“If he wants to sound silly,” said the Hall of Famer, “that is his business and not mine”). A multipartite version of the spiritual “Scandalize My Name” provided the tour-de-force reply, passing through disco and wah-wah funk and culminating in a thrilling breakdown with new lines added by Tines (“Cuz you gon’ mess up and you gon’ find out”). As he did in “The Black Clown,” Tines used genre as a dramaturgical tool, stitching Robeson into a Black musical lineage, in which art can be a medium to express oneself joyfully and irrevocably under duress.

When he dropped the Robeson impersonation and began using the lighter colors and textures of his natural singing voice, Tines was free to swing and soar. A daring falsetto pierced a Bach chorale, and the finale, which found Tines climbing a scale with increasing intensity in “This Little Light of Mine,” brought the audience to its feet.

Clocking in around an hour, the show nevertheless presented challenges for Tines’s emotionally invested and tightly controlled style. He was more comfortable in clap-and-snap gospel than intricate, R&B-style runs. The lowest notes were ever so slightly out of reach, and the emphasis on timbral breadth sometimes turned his singing gummy (“There Is a Balm in Gilead”), exaggerated or approximate.

As a coda, Tines sang “Old Man River,” a Robeson signature of problematic provenance. “That’s the old man that I don’t want to be,” he intoned with a tweak to the lyric, stripping the song of its hypnotic lilt in a driving interpretation that traded tokenization for reclamation.

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