Star of Stage and Screen
“Like every true artist, I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity.”
Paul Robeson, 24 June 1937
Apart from in his roles in the early O’Neill plays, Robeson struggled to find vehicles to reflect his world view. Black Boy was seen by some in the black press as a stereotypical portrayal of the black man. Ten years later, Robeson realised:
“It didn’t go to the lengths it might have done. The Negro couldn’t say in it all that he really lived and felt. Why, the white people in the audience would never stand for it. Even if you were to write a Negro play that is truthful and intellectually honest, the audiences, in America at least, would never listen to it.”
In 1935 in London, he played a stereotypical African chief in Basalik. The following year he took the lead in Toussaint L’Ouverture, a drama about the eighteenth-century Haitian slave revolt. Both plays failed to create strong and complex images of black experience for multicultural audiences. These experiences led him to lose hope of being able to..
“portray the life or express the living interests, hopes and aspirations of the struggling people from whom I come.”
Which was why, in 1938, he turned down the West End to appear instead in Unity Theatre’s strike play, Plant in the Sun by Ben Bengal.
“Joining Unity Theatre means identifying myself with the working-class ... it was a question of finding somewhere to work that would tie me up with the things I believed in, or stopping altogether.”
Paul Robeson, The Daily Worker