Paul Robeson

Celebrating Black History Month in Theatre
Posted on 02/10/2021
Image of Paul Robeson(from Mark Zimmerman)

The son of a former slave turned preacher, Robeson attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he was an All-America football player. Upon graduating from Rutgers at the head of his class, he rejected a career as a professional athlete and instead entered Columbia University. He obtained a law degree in 1923; but, because of the lack of opportunity for blacks in the legal profession, he drifted to the stage, making a London debut in 1922.

Robeson joined the Provincetown Players, a New York theatre group that included playwright Eugene O’Neill, and appeared in O’Neill’s play "All God’s Chillun Got Wings" in 1924. His subsequent appearance in the title role of O’Neill’s "The Emperor Jones" caused a sensation in New York City (1924) and London (1925). He also starred in the film version of the play (1933).

In addition to his other talents, Robeson had a superb bass-baritone singing voice. In 1925, he gave his first vocal recital of African American spirituals in Greenwich Village, New York City; and he became world famous as Joe in the musical play "Show Boat" with his version of “Ol’ Man River.” His characterization of the title role in "Othello" in London (1930) won high praise, as did the Broadway production (1943), which set an all-time record run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway.

Image of Paul Robeson
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