Solo Robeson in Space Premieres at Luna Stage
Coming in at under one hour, Robeson in Space, a one act solo performance piece featuring Guillermo E. Brown as Paul Robeson’s “ghost,” is a dense hodgepodge of undigested and unintegrated materials. It is intermittently theatrical and, after a slow and distancing, overly abstract start, it throws off any number of raw ideas which sometimes manage to engage the mind. However, in the end, it is nothing more than an elaborately staged and flamboyantly acted undisciplined Def Poetry Jam monologue.
A star athlete (at Rutgers University), a scholar (class valedictorian), attorney (after graduating from Columbia University Law School), actor, and world class concert singer, Paul Robeson, a dedicated political activist seeking justice and equality for all people, believed that Communism would provide it. However, during the Red Scare of the 1950s, Robeson was vilified for his views, harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and denied a passport.
In 1961, Robeson was hospitalized in a London psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. While there, he was given electro-compulsive therapy. This is the time and setting of Robeson in Space. Within this setting, our “ghost” riffs on events in the life of Robeson, colonialism, the cold war, the red scare, the Bay of Pigs, racism in America, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm and feckless Negro leadership, as well as diverse cultural phenomena including the Beatles, Hammer Studio horror movies, “imagineering” and rap. Pre-1961 or post-1961 (even after Robeson’s death), it doesn’t matter. And most centrally, there is the image of Yuri Gagarin, the first man to travel in space, whose flight occurred at the same time as Robeson’s hospitalization.
The rub is that this play is not truly about the great Paul Robeson. Robeson does appear in film clips projected on screens set about the stage, and we hear his recorded voice in speech and song. These are the strongest elements of the piece. Guillermo Brown as his “ghost” bestrides the stage costumed as O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, a role closely associated with Robeson, and, occasionally lip synchs to his recordings. However, Robeson is to be seen nowhere in his presence. Brown evokes neither the carriage, dignity, strength, style, voice, nor era of Paul Robeson.
Along with director Tim Raphael, Guillermo E. Brown has written this piece. And the main character is Brown himself (Robeson’s “ghost”, my foot). The painful injustices which Robeson endured are just a platform for an evening of Brown’s and (I assume) Raphael’s riffs on race, America and sundry peripheral matters.
Let me not forget Yuri Gagarin. The authors juxtapose images of his flight, projections of drawn images of the heavens, and space movie sound effects with Robeson’s shock treatment. A Gagarin description of the physiological pressures and strains that he experienced from acceleration forces, vibration, noise, weightlessness and the pressure of g-forces is projected as a shaken and disoriented Robeson is subjected to electric shocks. Amid the noisy array of visual and sonic effects, it appears that the abuse that Robeson has been and is being subjected to is being analogized to the stresses of being hurtled into space. However, program notes and a line employed in the work’s promotional materials (“In space, no one can steal your dreams ...”), make it clear that the authors are attempting to show that Robeson’s inquiring mind raises him above his plight.
While Brown is no Paul Robeson, he is a strong and convincing Def Poetry Jammer. His mastery of his material is complete, and he is a dynamic, engaging performer. If, in the writing, he would definitively place himself outside of Robeson, and in the process, morph into a storyteller only donning Robeson’s skin to illustrate events in Robeson’s life, Brown’s performance could be exemplary.
Tim Raphael has employed five screens, included three moveable ones which are outsize versions of hospital screens, projections, music, sound effects, and a handful of additional props to create some theatrical fireworks.
Brown’s raw talent and passion, even with the collaboration of the more experienced Tim Raphael, are not sufficient to make the scattershot polemics of Robeson in Space digestible. However, the artistry and potential on display are undeniable.
Robeson in Space continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.) through October 23, 2005) at Luna Stage. 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online: www.lunastage.org.
Robeson in Space by Guillermo E. Brown and Tim Raphael; directed
by Tim Raphael