It’s a wonderful coincidence: The opening, this year, of the sparkling new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers University, where he excelled as a student and an athlete. And so the venerated Crossroads Theatre Company, presenting the first play at NBPAC’s Arthur Laurents Theater (the smaller of its two performance spaces), has wisely chosen Phillip Hayes Dean’s biographical “Paul Robeson.”
The play, which ran on Broadway in 1978 (with James Earl Jones) as well as 1988 and 1995 (both times with Avery Brooks), is basically a monologue, though two people are onstage throughout its two acts. In New Brunswick, Nathaniel Stampley plays Robeson, and Nat Adderley Jr., an esteemed member of the New Jersey jazz community, plays piano and occasionally interacts with Robeson as well. (Technically, Adderley is playing Robeson’s longtime accompanist Lawrence Brown, though we never learn much about Brown.).
Stampley does a good job of evoking Robeson’s larger-than-life presence, and re-creates Robeson sonorous tone on the show’s many songs. His “Ol’ Man River” in particular — which closes the show’s first act — is a real show-stopper.
The rest of the first act, though, was a little underwhelming, though I don’t think has anything to do with Stampley, Adderley or director Marshall Jones III (who is also Crossroads’ producing artistic director). Or even with Dean’s script. I just think there wasn’t enough conflict in the early part of Robeson’s life to make for much onstage drama.
Yes, as Dean makes clear, Robeson encountered prejudice at Rutgers and elsewhere. But he seems to just shrug it aside, as he progresses from one extremely impressive accomplishment to another.
By the end of the first act, Robeson has not just become an All-American football player and valedictorian at Rutgers, but, after graduation, has distinguished himself as a lawyer, a professional football player and a star actor and vocalist. (He also has married, though Dean is much more concerned with Robeson’s professional life than his personal life.)
Act two started with a jazzy musical segment featuring Adderley. It was excellent, on a musical level, but seemed out of place. Musically, Robeson never had much to do with jazz: he sang spirituals, folks songs and show tunes with the delivery of a classical bass baritone.
Things heat up in the second act when Robeson, in his travels as a world renowned artist, experiences the horrors of Nazi Germany first-hand, develops a social conscience and an interest in communism, and supports the Civil Rights Movement. He suffers professional consequences, and is blacklisted. As Stampley mischievously emphasizes, even Rutgers disowned him, temporarily.
Robeson eventually loses his cool in the second act. But he never loses his dignity and, as Dean makes clear, remains a hero worth celebrating, as well as a stunningly accomplished man.
“Paul Robeson” runs through Sept. 15 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. The Crossroads Theatre Company’s next production will be a musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” Dec. 5-15. Visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
The George Street Playhouse will also present plays at NBPAC, beginning with “Last Days of Summer,” Oct. 15-Nov. 10. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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