Friday, 3 August 2018

Blackface in Wales? Bryn Terfel Sings Paul Robeson

My eyebrow rose involuntarily the other day when I read that a show about Paul Robeson with Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel in the lead role had sold out months ahead of its premiere next weekend as part of the National  Eistedffodd in Cardiff. A mistake, surely? Reading the blurb, it turns out that the production has the blessing of the Robeson family and that it received generous corporate sponsorship. One other tiny detail was that Sir Bryn plays Mr. Jones, Robeson’s “greatest fan.”  (Sigh of relief).

As someone who has been performing my own Robeson play for over ten years, and putting aside the slight envy of such a large audience, corporate sponsorship and all, I am pleased that he is receiving this renewed attention, over forty years after his death.

Paul Robeson’s story not only deserves to be told, its retelling is, to my mind, desperately urgent in today’s divided world. However, there will be those who question the legitimacy of a white man being the teller of this important tale. I happen not to be one of those, for if Robeson taught me anything, it is that the human condition demands that all people struggle together for justice and for peace, that this involves sharing each other’s stories, and that those stories are often most effectively sung.

Miss Littlewood, RSC
Many British theatregoers will be familiar with the power of this combination of words and song in the work of Joan Littlewood, that famous revolutionary of the theatre, whose life story has been told in a musical Miss Littlewood at the RSC recently. Seven singer-actors share the title role. Three of those actors happened to be Black, and interestingly, the reviews I have seen don’t mention that fact.

A recent theatrical production I had the pleasure to attend also illustrates the power, not just of song as a weapon of struggle, but of people of different races and nationalities getting together to tell historical stories which have a powerful resonance today. Bread and Roses at the Oldham Coliseum told the story of the 1912 strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts where an almost entirely immigrant population of workers who had long suffered extreme exploitation at the hands of the town’s mill owners were supported by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World – the “Wobblies”) who used song as one of the weapons that eventually contributed to their victory.  

In Bread and Roses, the multiracial cast included a Black woman taking the part of the white Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The back story for the Black Flynn differed from that of the real woman, but added another dimension to the tale – the existence of a Black middle class, and solidarity and empathy across the race and class divide. That the strike was led and won by women and that it united people of disparate origins (strike meetings were reportedly held in twenty-five languages) are historical facts that can provide inspiration and instruction to us today, as our leaders continue to try to divide us and scare us with the threat of unbridled immigration.

Bread and Roses’s  run in Oldham was short, and it would be a travesty not to revive it for a national tour and a long run in London (Miss Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford East would be a fitting home). Over a century after the story it brilliantly told unfolded, all the issues are with us today, thanks to the divisive economics and politics of the ensuing decades. For those lamenting the ongoing decline of Trade Unionism here and internationally, the show will be nothing short of inspiring, and can even be used as a recruiting tool with which to revive the movement, as the stories of numerous brave individuals, told beautifully through song, will certainly touch the hearts of all but the emotionally dead.

Trade Unions and song are central to the bonds that link Paul Robeson to Wales, for it was the singing of members of their miners union who had marched to London to highlight their plight that drew Robeson’s attention, and won them his unrelenting support subsequently. It is
therefore absolutely fitting for a Welshman to tell his story today.

In the film that Robeson made with the miners telling the story about that strike – Proud Valleywhen in response to one miner objecting to a Black man being given a job down the mine, one leader retorted, “We’re all black down ‘ere, aren't we?”

So sing on, Sir Bryn, and pob lwc.

Tayo Aluko is the writer and performer of Call Mr. Robeson and Just An Ordinary Lawyer


  1. love what you do Tayo,in your depiction of Paul when you came to Alnwick earlier this year.

  2. A word to the wise: choosing an actor for a part is not a matter of legitimacy but artistic merit; law courts determine legitimacy, informed public opinion determines merit.
    US law courts legitimated racism until 1954; USSR law courts never legitimated racism.
    Best wishes and keep up the inspiring work that you do.