There’s a lot more to the man than “Ol’ Man River,” actor Stogie Kenyatta has learned by playing Robeson on stage
By Michael Aushenker
Stogie Kenyatta pauses, reflects, then concludes, “There is some comfort that one person could create tremendous change.”
Yes, February is Black History Month in America, and yes, the actor could easily be referring to Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X.
But the topic of discussion today is Paul Robeson, a pioneering African-American entertainer who later became a Civil Rights Movement activist.
For 12 years, Kenyatta has portrayed Robeson in the one-man show, “The World is My Home: The Life of Paul Robeson,” which returns to Santa Monica Playhouse on Saturday.
Kenyatta’s one-man play (which enjoys a Playhouse monthly residency) covers Robeson’s life from age 5 to his 1960s retirement under emotional and physical duress.
“This is the only one I do,” says Kenyatta, who has performed “The World is My Home” internationally.
Kenyatta’s Robeson odyssey began when West Los Angeles College in Culver City hired him to play the part in a campus production. While the average person may best remember Robeson for his role in “Showboat” — which gave the entertainer his signature song, “Ol’ Man River” — “his life was so fascinating,” Kenyatta says. “There was so much more to him than I even imagined.”
The Brooklyn native, who also does stand-up, has done much TV and movie work (“ER,” “Bernie Mac,” “Batman and Robin”). However, the actor found many of the roles he was offered lacking — uninspired and sadly stereotypical.
“The work on television has not been close to being rewarding. I don’t get anything [of substance],” Kenyatta said.
With “The World is My Home,” Kenyatta has constructed the perfect theatrical showcase for his varied talents.
“It’s evolved over the years. It’s always really a work in process,” Kenyatta says.
Interesting tidbits Kenyatta gleaned along the way include Robeson’s longtime friendship with Albert Einstein and personal stories that Dr. Sterling Stuckey, who knew Robeson, shared following a performance.
Kenyatta was also surprised to discover that “The Jazz Singer” star Al Jolson was white and Jewish, which he learned after an older Jewish lady introduced herself as Jolson’s granddaughter after a “World” performance in New York. Robeson’s son had married a Jewish woman, and Kenyatta sees many parallels between the black and Jewish experiences.
“We do need to find a way to embrace our common humanity,” Kenyatta says.
Kenyatta observes how after two world wars claimed 96 million dead (including 64 million civilians), the African-American leaders of the Harlem Renaissance — Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Robeson, etc. — played Europe, “showing the world their artistry and creating our black identity,” he said. “Since our nations go to war, it is arts and cultures that unite us.”
While Kenyatta’s play closes during the Civil Rights Movement, “I didn’t want to cross lines,” he said.
“Robeson’s concept that all men were brothers was around before Martin Luther King. The social criteria he grew up under was even worse than Dr. King’s.”
According to Kenyatta, Rogers and Hammerstein originally wrote Robeson’s signature “Showboat” song ridden with N-word references. So by rewriting the lyrics (“There’s an old man called the Mississippi”), Robeson “added a lot of dignity. He said, ‘I didn’t get a law degree so I could come and sing pretty songs for white people.’”
Robeson was by no means saintly. His extramarital affairs — including Peggy Ashcroft, his co-star in a 1930 Savoy Theatre production of “Othello” — strained his marriage to wife Essie.
“It wasn’t that he was a womanizer,” Kenyatta says Stuckey relayed to him. But his muscular 6’4” frame and valedictorian Columbia University law degree “made him attractive to women black and white. He could talk French to a French girl, Italian to an Italian girl.”
Robeson’s political activism landed him in trouble with government entities, including McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and his mental health dissolved into paranoia as he spent years outfoxing the FBI, CIA and KGB. His physical health also declined after Essie’s death in 1965. Robeson died in 1976 at age 77.
Like a Cubist, Kenyatta seeks to simultaneously show the many facets of Robeson in order to flesh him out into an in-depth human being.
“The Santa Monica Playhouse beats everything” to achieve this end, he says. “It’s an intimate 99-seater.”
Yes, it’s Black History Month, but Kenyatta paints the portrait of a man who transcended race and became a universal example: “The more education society has, the more inclined we are to be humane to our fellow citizen.”
“The World is My Home: The Life of Paul Robeson” is at 8 p.m. Saturday at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. $20. Call (310) 394-9779 or visit santamonicaplayhouse.com.