by Peter Aaron
The life of the singer, actor, lawyer, athlete, and activist (1989-1976) has been long overdue for a biopic, so it was encouraging to learn last year that director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) announced that he’s working on just such a film. But McQueen has been beaten to the punch in telling Robeson’s incredible story by Nigerian-born, UK-based playwright and singer Tayo Aluko, whose original stage production “Call Mr. Robeson” will be performed at Peekskill’s Paramount Hudson Valley Theater. Fittingly, the Westchester County city was also the site of the infamous Peekskill riots of 1949, in which a concert to benefit the Civil Rights Congress headlined by the communist-affiliated Robeson and Pete Seeger was attacked by rock-throwing, racially intolerant protestors—which local police did little to stop.
With Aluko in the lead role, “Call Mr. Robeson” features piano accompaniment by New York Labor Chorus pianist Dennis Nelson. Among the highlights are renditions of “Ol’ Man River” and other songs by the basso profondo, as well as reenactments of his signature fiery oratory and his defiant testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.
Here’s some historic footage about the 1949 riots with narration by Seeger and Sidney Poitier (warning: crowd-shouted racial epithets are audible):
“Call Mr. Robeson” will be performed at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater on November 15 at 7pm. Tickets are $20 and $30. For more information, call (914) 739-0039 ext. 2 or visit http://paramounthudsonvalley.com/.