Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Emperor Robeson: Clifford Mason Tells It Like It Was

 “I’m the only man in the world big enough to get me.” That may sound like the ravings of a contemporary megalomaniac politician certain that no mortal can remove him from his pedestal. But the line goes back to 1920, and Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic drama, The Emperor Jones. It’s the story of Brutus Jones, a cocky African-American Pullman porter who kills a crony in a dice game and is sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. Escaping out to sea, he finds himself on a Caribbean island, where the credulous Black natives accept him as their divinely anointed leader. Yet there’s a snake in this paradise and it involves the workings of Jones’ own mind. When his subjects begin to turn on him, he flees into the jungle. The natives have been warned that only a silver bullet can kill him . . . but the rising cadence of their tom-toms gradually drives him mad.   

 It’s a bravura role for an actor, and a landmark play for the American theatre, which until that point had shied away from using Black actors in anything but comic performances. For the most part, specifically Black dramatic roles (like those in the perennial Uncle Tom’s Cabin) were played well into the 20th century by white actors with burnt-cork makeup. Many tastemakers were convinced that no African American could ever get far enough away from his jungle roots to properly intone the divine words of Shakespeare, including the title role of Othello.

 I learned about much of this while reading a fascinating new book by playwright Clifford Mason. It’s titled Macbeth in Harlem; Black Theater in America from the Beginning to Raisin in the Sun. I first met Cliff online after stumbling onto a diatribe he’d published in the New York Times  in 1967. It bravely took on America’s most popular Hollywood actor of that era, under the snarky headline, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” Cliff has the courage of his convictions, and he’s funny, to boot. Though I’ve yet to see any of his thirty-three plays, I admire him as a critic and theatre historian, especially after reading this well-researched (though deeply idiosyncratic and sometimes cranky) study.

 In Cliff’s book I read about thespian Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), who had to leave America. to star on European stages in classical roles. And I read about Bert Williams (1874-1922), a gifted song-and-dance man forced to darken his light skin with burnt cork in order to fulfill the stereotype of the “colored” entertainer. Then there’s the controversial staging of an all-Black Caribbean-style Macbeth in Harlem, under the direction of the young Orson Welles, through the support of the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project. But the figure who lingers in my mind is Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the multi-talented singer/actor/scholar/athlete who briefly set the theatre world alight before running afoul of the U.S. government during the McCarthy era. Cliff’s book sent me to Robeson’s performance in Hollywood’s 1933 screen version of The Emperor Jones. Despite the creakiness of the filming, it’s a powerhouse performance, one of Robeson’s few major screen roles before he soured on Hollywood’s brand of social conservatism.

 We can’t forget Robeson’s glorious basso voice. The screen version of The Emperor Jones enables him to sing church hymns and chain gang songs, while also impressively delivering the extended monologue that ends the film. Another showcase for his musical talent is Showboat: he sings “Old Man River” in the 1936 musical in which Helen Morgan (a white actress) plays the inevitable tragic mulatto role. But Hollywood, alas, never made full use of this magnificent man.




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