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The Robeson Project

The Robeson Project

Led by Warwick/RSC Fellow of Creativity, Tony Howard

This was a cross-disciplinary enquiry into the career and the legacy of Paul Robeson culminating in an exhibition accompanying the recent RSC Production of Othello and displayed at the V&A Museum as part of their Black Heritage Week.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a stage and screen actor, a musician, an athlete, a scholar, a lawyer and a tireless campaigner for the rights of oppressed people of all races - an extraordinary icon and an enduring role-model. Blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, attacked onstage by racist mobs, he was unable to perform in the USA in the 1950s and denied the passport that would let him work abroad. This pioneer of the Civil Rights movement finally won back his passport in the courts and ended his acting career gloriously at Stratford in 1959, playing Othello.

Connecting creativity and performance to research, and extending connections between the university and the community, the CAPITAL Robeson Project (January-June 2008) involved two linked strands:

The Archive: Robeson, Othello, and the British Actor

 a. Performance - oral history recording the memories of those who worked with Robeson on the Stratford Othello (e.g. Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave).

 b. Legacy - interviews with younger Afro-Caribbean performers (e.g. Sir Willard White) to establish what Robeson meant as an artist and for them and their families

 c. Dialogue - discussions of his interpretation and vocal performance - preserved in American (1943) and British (1959) recordings, as well as concert-hall extracts - with actors who have played Othello.  

 The exhibition:

A Slave's Son at Stratford, Paul Robeson 1889-1976: The exhibition coincides with the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2009 production of Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, which opened at Warwick Arts Centre and will tour the UK until mid March. The exhibition is in two parts:

a. Panel Exhibition - displayed in Warwick Arts Centre 20 January to 17 February and touring with the production to Northern Stage Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Liverpool Playhouse. A commentary by Tony Howard will be available as a podcast.

b. Original Documents - from the collections of the University's Modern Records Centre and private owners on display at the Modern Records Centre 20 January to 13 March 2009. An online exhibition relating to the Let Robeson Sing Campaign is at the MRC web site.

c. Podcasts - two discussions accompanied the exhibition:

Speak of Me as I Am: Inside Othello: actor Joseph Marcell and Tony Howard, chaired by Baroness Lola Young discuss Black performers' perspectives on one of Shakespeare's most controversial roles

I have Done the State Some Service: Robeson and the FBI: presented by Tony Howard, with actors Stephen Thorne and Malcolm Taylor, chaired by Professor Carol Rutter.

An article about the project, 'Thereby Hangs a Tale' by Chris Arnott from The Research Dimension (September 2008), a publication about research at the University of Warwick, can be accessed here. Terry Grimley previewed the exhibition in the Birmingham Post.

The project continues with Tony Howard's contribution to The Robeson Files, aired on Radio 2 on 6 July 2011 which is covered in Wales Online