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Celebrating the life and work of Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson as OthelloFifty years after his performance of Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the life and work of Paul Robeson will take centre stage in a series of events to compliment the RSC's latest production of Othello at the Warwick Arts Centre.

Two exhibitions and a panel discussion are among the fringe events celebrating the outspoken actor and civil rights activist who shot to fame in 1930 when he became the first black actor to perform the lead role in Othello since Ira Aldridge in 1860.

The events are organised by Tony Howard, Professor of English at Warwick University. In Spring 2008 he was Warwick\RSC Fellow in Creativity and Performance at Warwick University's CAPITAL Centre, where he researched Paul Robeson's relationship with the FBI and the British Special Branch, examining over 3,000 declassified surveillance documents and interviewing performers and politicians who worked with Paul Robeson in the 1950s. 

The son of an escaped slave and a victim of racism and prejudice throughout his life, Robeson nonetheless excelled in many fields, as a sportsman in his college days who played in the predecessor to the NFL and later as an accomplished singer and actor whose debut performance as Othello received 20 curtain calls.

Robeson used his fame to fight for causes around the world, including co-founding the Council on African Affairs to aid African liberation, supporting anti-lynching legislation in the US and praising the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of the US Government.

A Slave's Son at Stratford

On the 20th January, two exhibitions at the Arts Centre Bar and the Modern Records Centre open. At the Modern Records Centre, the focus will be on his last work as an actor at the RSC in 1959 and the 'Let Robeson Sing!' campaign to restore his right to travel after the US Government withdrew his passport at the height of McCarthyism.

In the Arts Centre Bar, Othello and race before Robeson will be the focus, as will his performance at Stratford and those actors who have followed in his footsteps in the role of Othello. The exhibitions are free and run until the 7th February.

The Modern Records Centre is located just behind Warwick Arts Centre. Opening hours: Monday/Tuesday: 9am-5pm (extended on Tuesday 3rd February); Wednesday/Thursday: 9am-7pm; Friday: 9am-4pm. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

Opening hours for the exhibition in the Warwick Arts Centre bar: Monday-Saturdays: 9.30am til end of show; Sundays: 2-8pm

Is Obama an Othello for our time?

Reflecting on the excitement of the US presidential campaign, this seminar in the Arts Centre's Conference Room on the 31st January brings together artists, politicians and broadcasters to question the links between the journey of Barack Obama and the story of Othello. 

Chaired by Channel 4 News presenter and reporter, Samira Ahmed, and featuring Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author and columnist for The Independent.  Yasmin’s one woman show about her lifelong love of Shakespeare, Nowhere to Belong: Tales of an Extravagant Stranger, was developed with and premiered at the RSC.

  • The seminar starts at 5pm, to buy tickets visit the Warwick Arts Centre website.

Speak of me as I am: Inside Othello

On the 3rd February, leading black performers discuss one of Shakespeare’s greatest but most controversial roles in a forum chaired by Baroness Lola Young at the Conference Room. 

The panel will include actor, Joseph Marcell, who has both played Othello and directed the play. Perhaps best known as Geoffrey, the snooty butler from the American sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Joseph’s extensive credits include numerous appearances for the RSC and at The Globe.

Danny Sapani has played Othello at the Byre Theatre, directed by Maggie Kinloch and other Shakespearean roles at the National, the Globe and the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre.

  • The seminar starts at 6pm, to buy tickets visit the Warwick Arts Centre website.

I have done the state some service: Othello, Robeson and the FBI

For thirty years Paul Robeson used Shakespeare’s tragedy to combat racism.  Professor Tony Howard (University of Warwick) reunites some of those who worked with Robeson and introduces rare recordings of his Othello in a seminar at the Conference Room on the 5th February.  Participants include Stephen Thorne and Malcolm Taylor, TV and theatre director, who appeared in the 1959 production of Othello, alongside Paul Robeson.

  • The discussion starts at 6pm, to buy tickets visit the Warwick Arts Centre website.