Actor portrays life of Paul Robeson in performance at Livingstone
By Laurie Willis
Before Wednesday, some Livingstone College students may not have been familiar with Paul Robeson.
Chances are they’re now dying to know more about him.
During their weekly assembly in Varick Auditorium on Wednesday, students, faculty and staff were treated to a one-man act titled: “The World is My Home ó The Life of Paul Robeson.”
The performance was given by actor, comedian and writer Stogie Kenyatta, whose show, which he has performed on Broadway, has received critical acclaim.
Suffice it to say, the performance was well-received at Livingstone.
“I thought the show was outstanding,” said Dr. Stanley J. Elliott, vice president of students affairs. “We try to make our assemblies engaging and educational. I think we accomplished both goals because Mr. Kenyatta’s performance was excellent and captured the students’ attention, and likewise, Paul Robeson is someone whose history should be known by all Americans, not just African-Americans.”
Robeson, born April 9, 1898, in Princeton, N.J., was the youngest son of five children of William Drew Robeson, a Presbyterian minister, and Maria Louisa Robeson, a teacher.
He was an internationally renowned American concert singer, actor, scholar and social activist.
At Rutgers University, Robeson was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society and was valedictorian of his class. He participated in football, baseball, basketball and track and field and twice earned all-American football honors.
In 1923 he earned his law degree from the Columbia Law School, where he met his wife, Eslanda Cordoza Goode, the first black woman to head a pathology lab. He was inducted, posthumously, into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.
“I just love chocolate cake,” Kenyatta said on stage while portraying a 5-year-old Robeson. “I just love chocolate cake because my mama makes the best chocolate cake in the whole wide world.”
Suddenly, a woman’s screams are heard in the background.
In a somber voice, Kenyatta explains that Robeson’s mother died after being burned when the cotton dress she wore caught fire while she stood at the stove.
“Mama didn’t realize her dress was burning because she was busy cooking,” he said. “I don’t know of any good way to die, but I can’t think of anything worse than this.”
Kenyatta took the audience through his mother’s death, explaining that Robeson never got that image out of his mind. He showed the audience the close bond between Robeson and his father, and he took them through Robeson’s courtship of his wife, whom he met at a hospital after having his shoulder dislocated during a football game.
During the one-hour performance, shortened about 30 minutes from its normal length, Kenyatta also gave Livingstone students, faculty and staff a glimpse of Robeson’s days at Rutgers.
After being mistreated by his football teammates, Robeson quit the team. But after calling and talking to some of his three older brothers, who reminded him Robesons weren’t quitters, he returned to the squad.
“My white teammates smashed my face,” Kenyatta said, demonstrating vehemently. “They stomped on my fingers with their metal cleats. (But) ten days later, to my coaches’ and teammates’ surprise, I was back out there.”
Then, Kenyatta got a huge laugh from the crowd ó one of several during his show ó when he demonstrated how fiercely Robeson played when he returned.
After knocking two players out of his way, Robeson reached a third. He hoisted the young man in the air, ready to slam him to the ground, when the coach came running up to him shouting excitedly: “Robeson, you made the team! You made the team! Now put the white boy down, son. Put down my quarterback.”
Kenyatta’s act also highlighted the racism of Robeson’s day.
“I couldn’t even live on campus and had to live with a black family in New Jersey,” he said. “I was one of only three colored boys at Rutgers, and I was chosen as valedictorian of the senior class. It was peculiar to speak to a class of scholars who respected me for my intellect and athletic ability but despised me for the color of my skin.”
Kenyatta is Jamaican born and lives with his wife and two children in the Los Angeles area.
“Most people who do Robeson try to sing all of his songs and talk about communism, but there’s so much more to him than that,” Kenyatta said in an interview after the performance.
After Kenyatta’s performance, Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr. told students Roberson is a perfect example of achieving against all odds.
“We talk about learning at Livingstone under much, much better circumstances than Paul Robeson had,” Jenkins said. “That’s what determination can do.”
Laurie D. Willis is assistant director of public relations at Livingstone College.