Angela Cobbinah discovers how Tayo Aluko gave up a career in architecture to spread the word about Paul Robeson, the world’s first black superstar who ended up being hounded by the US authorities
Since 2007, Tayo Aluko has been touring the US and UK with his one-man show, Call Mr Robeson, winning a standing ovation at New York’s Carnegie Hall last year amid a steady stream of critical praise.
So it comes as something of a surprise that up until then Aluko had worked as an architect and at one time had never heard of Paul Robeson, the US singer, actor and civil rights campaigner, who was persecuted by the US authorities for his radical political beliefs.
‘Well, I may have heard of him in passing, but I knew absolutely nothing about him, not even that he was a singer,’ he recalls. ‘Looking back, that seems incredible now but it just goes to show how successfully he has been buried in history because of his views.’
How Paul Robeson entered his consciousness was one of those life changing, chance events. ‘It happened on June 23, 1995,’ he recalls smiling. ‘I have always sung for a hobby and that day, after giving a recital, someone asked me whether I sang any Robeson songs. I didn’t know what they were talking about so I decided to read up about him – and discovered his amazing story.’
His first thought was that somebody should write a stage play about him. Despite his prodigious talents and extraordinary life, Robeson had seldom been the subject of a drama, much less a film. After failing to find a suitable candidate he came to the conclusion that he would have to do it himself – as well as perform the lead role.
That required a considerable shift in gear. Aluko, originally from Ilesha in Osun State, Nigeria, was working as an architect and his only contact with the world of stage was as an amateur singer. But by now, so passionate was he about the idea of telling Robeson’s story, that nothing would stop him.
Ten years after his epiphany, he wrote the draft of his play and sent it to a theatre in Liverpool, the city in the north of England where he lives. ‘It wasn’t very good and was completely dismissed.’
Things began looking up after teaming up with the theatre director Olusola Oyelele, who quickly helped him knock the play into shape. Having never acted, he also decided to crash course in drama.
It was all very different from what his parents had envisaged for him. His father, Timothy Aluko, was a town planner and civil engineer responsible for the introduction of high standards for foundations in the notoriously poor soil of Lagos, which led to the tall buildings like Western House, Race Course, being safely erected.
Aluko senior had had his son educated at the prestigious King’s College in Lagos before sending him off to boarding school in England as a prelude to his architectural training.
But that is only half the story. His father, better known as TM Aluko, was also a popular novelist, who wrote mainly satirical books in the 1950s and ‘60s on Nigerian life like One Man, One Wife and Chief, The Honourable Minister, affording him a frame of mind that accepted his son’s sudden change of heart.
‘My father had always been worried that I enjoyed singing more than architecture but he eventually gave me his full blessing to follow my dream.’
Call Mr Robeson premiered at one of the UK’s biggest annual arts gatherings, the Edinburgh Festival, in 2007, receiving three standing ovations in a six-night run. ‘I knew then that my play had some potential.’
A year later he took it to Lagos at the invitation of the Music Society of Nigeria, where it was also well received. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, last year receiving a standing ovation at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where Robeson himself performed before a rapturous audience. ‘It was a magic moment,’ says Aluko, who had decided to sing there to mark his 50th birthday.
Call Mr Robeson opens with the singer and actor looking back on his life, reflecting on how he went from being one of Amercia’s highest earning performers in the 1930s to being a persona non grata in his own country in little more than a decade because of his outspoken stance against social injustice.
Unable to travel after the authorities revoke his passport in 1950 and ostracised from the US concert circuit, Robeson is virtually a broken man near the end, but is saved by his inner convictions.
‘Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X ended up assassinated after linking the fight for black civil rights with the class struggle and access to resources. Robeson made the same links much earlier on, but in his case he was neutralised rather than assassinated.’
His mental break down, his extra marital affairs, and his ‘too trusting’ attitude towards the Soviet Union are also touched upon. ‘That was who he was, a human being not a saint – the great thing about him is what he did.’
Aluko’s lively 80-minute monologue is interspersed with some of Robeson’s best known songs, Joe Hill and the Battle of Jericho among them. Possessing neither Robeson’s towering physique nor his powerful bass voice, he nevertheless manages to convey the singer’s spirit and courage, particularly in the scene depicting the Peekskill riots of 1949, in which he sings Old Man River to assembled trade unionists against the noise of a police helicopter hovering above.
During the five years of touring, Aluko has been both gratified by the number of people wanting to see a show about Robeson and dismayed by those who have still never heard about him, including young African Americans.
‘There are thousands of people who remember him but the fact remains he was branded a communist by the US authorities and by the 1960s he had been sidelined. This would explain why, despite my very good education and three architectural degrees, I had never heard of him either.’
Looking back, Aluko freely admits that giving up his career to tour the show was not the most sensible thing to do. ‘It was crazy. I had to rent theatres but I was short of money, which meant I often couldn’t afford to pay people to print posters and fliers.’
It is still a somewhat precarious existence, he admits, and audience numbers have ranged from three to full house. But word has got around. Call Mr Robeson is booked until September next year and Aluko plans to tour it until 2014, after which he will explore other projects.
In the meantime, does he ever get bored performing the same play over and over again? ‘I never get bored,’ he says. ‘And I am never tempted to give it less than 100 per cent. I see it as a calling not a job, a way of bringing Robeson back into the public consciousness.’
Published Africa Briefing, November 30 2012