Remembering Paul Robeson

An artist and a citizen: (A young) Paul Robeson.  (photo credit: UNITED IN MUSIC INC.)
An artist and a citizen: (A young) Paul Robeson.
(photo credit: UNITED IN MUSIC INC.)
Folk and polemic song enthusiasts who remember the deep bass voice of the late Paul Robeson can celebrate his legacy with the Haifa English Theatre in November.
Milwaukee-born opera singer Jason McKinney, performing as Paul Robeson, will give two performances of “Moments with Paul” for HET, on November 9 and 11, accompanied by Baltimorean pianist Christopher Bagley in the role of Robeson’s accompanist Lawrence Brown.
World-famous Robeson was often quoted as saying: “As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.”
The African American Renaissance man (1898-1976) preceded Martin Luther King and was part of the Civil Rights movement in the war against racism and segregation at a time when it was rampant in the US.
His father had been born into slavery and escaped from the plantation in his teens, becoming a minister of the Presbyterian Church. His mother was from a Quaker family.
Robeson had many talents, was a football champion at Rutgers College and graduated from Columbia Law School. Racism and prejudice held him back from what should have been a brilliant legal career.
In his youth he developed his famous rich bass voice. He was versatile in his stage career, singing spirituals as well as popular songs and classics, performing in the Harlem Renaissance and throughout the United States.
After starring in Showboat in London in 1928, he stayed on in Britain, appearing in Othello in the title role.
He was a handsome man, enjoyed the admiration of women and in spite of the racial prejudice of that time had several affairs with famous women stage celebrities. On the brink of divorce, his wife wanted to prevent a scandal and stuck by him.
However, despite his enormous popularity and highly successful career on stage and in films, he was eventually silenced and his career ended by prejudice and McCarthyism.
It is therefore appropriate that these performances, sponsored by UNITED IN MUSIC Inc., which will embody the many fascinating sides of Robeson’s life, are being held at HET’s regular venue in Haifa, the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center.
McKinney, winner of the 2001 Metropolitan Opera’s district competition, has performed at The Kennedy Center, The White House and in many prestigious venues in Europe. He has performed the title roles in La Boheme, Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Porgy and Bess.
Paradoxically, he sings as a cantorial soloist for his synagogue in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and as an artist in residence at the Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston, Salem.
Accompanist Christopher Bagley, who plays the role of Robeson’s accompanist Lawrence Brown, learned the piano from his father at age five. He also plays the trumpet, clarinet and saxophone, and is a musical director. He is president of UNITED IN MUSIC Inc.
Robeson’s lifelong friend and accompanist, Brown (1893-1972) was a famous composer and pianist in his own right. His father was a former slave; Brown made up for his impoverished childhood by working as an elevator operator to cover his musical studies. During the time he and Robeson worked in London, Brown performed at Buckingham Palace and studied advanced music composition at Trinity College. He published a book of American spiritual and folk songs. Brown’s partnership with Robeson spanned more than 40 years.
The Haifa English Theatre was founded in 1981, the first and longest-lasting of the amateur theater groups in Israel. In addition to its seasons of full-length plays, it holds workshops on improvisation and from time to time organizes special events with stage personalities from overseas. The theater group is run as a non-profit organization with the board members working as a team. They juxtapose their roles – whether it be on-stage or in the wings – acting the star parts, directing, building the sets, directing the music, making the costumes and ensuring continuity, that the furniture and artifacts match the period and storyline of the play.
Thursday, November 9 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, November 11 at 8 p.m.
Beit Hagefen Auditorium, 33 Hatzionut Street, Haifa Tickets available on performance nights (cash or check only) NIS 65; HET and community organization members NIS 55; soldiers and students (with ID) NIS 40.
Reserved seat ticket orders, group rates, special needs: Adrienne: (04) 870-8910 More information: and • Monday, November 13 at 8 p.m.
Kehillat Moreshet Avraham, 22 Adam Street, East Talpiot, Jerusalem At door: NIS 50; Discounts for soldiers and students Tickets: Bella at (02) 673-7183