By Joyce Galinski
The life of Paul Robeson, one of the most accomplished African-Americans of the 20th century, will be the subject of a one-man play Feb. 15-17 at St. Philip’s College.
The college’s department of fine arts will showcase a special presentation called “Paul Robeson” in association with Black History Month.
Vincent Contrell, theater program coordinator at St. Philip’s, will portray Robeson’s life. The show will be directed by Frank Latson, artistic director at the San Pedro Playhouse.
Nina McGrath, director of the fine arts academy and community liaison at St. Philip’s, said there will be a “student rush” 10 minutes before the show starts when all college students can purchase one ticket and get one free.
McGrath is calling the show “a great evening of entertainment and cultural enrichment” highlighting the accomplishments of Roberson, whom she calls a true renaissance man.
“Probably next to Martin Luther King Jr., Robeson was one of the most important men of the arts and letters,” McGrath said. “It’s interesting to note that he also mastered and spoke more than 11 different languages.”
Robeson was an important and influential African-American in the 20th century.
He was a talented athlete, actor, singer, author, cultural scholar and political activist.
Robeson earned a full academic scholarship to Rutgers University and was the only African-American student at the time. He was named an All-American football player in 1917 and 1918 and graduated as valedictorian. He then went on to study at Columbia Law School from 1920-22 where he was again the only student of color.
“After he graduated from Columbia Law, he was also a successful stage and film actor as well as a concert singer,” McGrath said.
In the 1940s, Robeson became a controversial political figure.
He was called to testify by the House Un-American Activities Committee and defend himself against accusations of being a communist, McGrath said.
As a result, his passport was taken away from 1950-58. This rendered him unable to support himself.
“By taking his passport, they took away his career and living,” McGrath said.
McGrath added that Robeson became depressed and fell ill in Russia in 1959. He was in and out of hospitals and misdiagnosed for physical and mental ailments. He soon went into seclusion and retirement in the 1960s.
He died in 1976 in Philadelphia.
“More than 100 years after his birth, Paul Robeson is only beginning to receive the credit he is due,” McGrath said.
Latson said he jumped at the chance to direct Contrell in another production.
“I’ve been lucky to work with him in about four or five other shows at the San Pedro Playhouse,” Latson said. “When Vincent came to me with the proposal of directing this show, I was thrilled and very honored to be asked.”
“For this show, there needed to be a very strong African-American character who can sing and portray Robeson. Vincent is amazing to work with. He’s always prepared, on time, intelligent and a pliable actor.”
Latson directed a one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt in California and “I am My Own Wife” last year at San Pedro Playhouse.
“From a director’s point of view, it’s easier to do a one-man show rather than a musical,” Latson said. “I’ve had my work cut in half for me, but from an actor’s standpoint, it is much harder for them.”
Contrell studied acting and theater in graduate school at Cornell University, then moved to New York in 1983 and began touring with “The Phantom of the Opera,” the National Shakespeare Theatre Company and Theatre Works USA, a children’s theater organization.
Contrell hopes the audience will become eager to learn about Robeson by listening to his music, watching some of his films and reading more about him.
“Paul Robeson was a very prominent man on the world stage at the time. Probably as much as Muhammad Ali is today,” Contrell said. “However, my sense is that his name isn’t mentioned enough in schools so I wanted the San Antonio community to know more about him.”
“Paul Robeson was a great humanitarian. If (the U.S.) is a country moving toward social progress, we have to understand the contributions he made and recognize how Martin Luther King and Malcom X stood on his shoulders because he represented the rights of all people,” Contrell said.
The play will be at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Watson Fine Arts Center.
Tickets for college students are $5 and general admission is $10. Seniors and military discounts will be given, while high school students get in free with their student ID.
For more information, call McGrath at 531-4704. Reservations can be made by calling the St. Philip’s College Box Office at 531-4700.