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The Paul Robeson Art Is a Weapon Festival 2013

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE PAUL Robeson Art Is a Weapon Festival 2013, the inaugural festival of performances and talks inspired by the life of the actor, singer and civil rights campaigner, will take place at the Tristan Bates Theatre from September 30 to October 26.

Tony Benn, Jackie Kay, Ava Vidal, the Guardian’s Gary Younge and other performers, historians and commentators from Canada, South Africa, Nigeria and around the UK gather for this new four week festival, celebrating the life of one of the most censored and prominent victims of McCarthyism.

Paul Robeson was an African-American singer and actor who became famous for his rendition of Ol’ Man River in the original London cast and film of Show Boat, going on to a prestigious stage and film career before risking and losing it all as a civil rights campaigner.

At the centre of the festival is Tayo Aluko’s multi-award winning play Call Mr. Robeson, a journey through Robeson’s life and career highlighting how his radical activism caused his downfall, and featuring his most famous songs and speeches.

The play has been performed in the UK, Canada, Jamaica, Nigeria and in the USA, including New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2012. It has won multiple awards including Best Actor, Best Original Work and the Impresario Award (London Fringe, Canada 2012), Playwright & Performer Awards and Ogeyyinka Merit Awards for Excellence (London 2010), and the Angel Award for Artistic Excellence: Best Male Performer (Brighton Festival Fringe 2008).

Robeson spoke out from the concert platform on behalf of the anti-fascist Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and against imperialism, Communism, and the US government, before finally lending his endorsement to the Soviet Union, the wrecking point of his career.

From being America’s “no.1 entertainer”, he fell under scrutiny from the FBI and became blacklisted under McCarthyism, with concerts and TV appearances cancelled and his passport revoked. He remained unapologetic for his political stances up to his death in 1976.

Tayo Aluko said: “It is interesting, at a time when Martin Luther King has been in the news so much recently, to reflect that Paul Robeson was still very active in the civil rights struggle that King’s image has come to dominate. Robeson was not invited to be a part of the March on Washington because of his radicalism, but I have heard people say that if King himself was around today, he wouldn’t have been invited to the commemoration, because he became a lot more radical (i.e more like Robeson) himself. I feel that Robeson’s story sheds a very interesting light on the modern civil rights movement, and indeed on today’s world.

“It is a real privilege to be surrounded by such a high-calibre rosta of artists, thinkers and activists agreeing to be part of the Art Is Festival. It shows how much esteem Paul Robeson is held in, how much his influence is still felt, and how many people agree with me that we could all benefit from re-examining his true story and ideas today.”

Tickets for Call Mr. Robeson: £12, £10 concessions, £7 schools – available from the box office on 020 7240 6283 or online at www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/.

For the festival’s full programme visit www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/artisaweapon.asp.