Paul Robeson’s Story Comes to Hamilton

Megan Niziol

The World is My Home – The Life & Times of Paul Robeson is a one-man show about the legendary life of Paul Robeson. Robeson, born in 1898, was active in the Harlem Renaissance, performed on Broadway and in numerous cities in Europe, Russia and Africa, being called the “biggest concert draw in the world.” This was after solidifying his fame in acting by appearing in 11 films. He then launched his political and social career, becoming a key part in the liberation of Africa and managed to learn 15 languages during all this. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Robeson was African American, the son of a slave, and living in America before the Civil Rights Movement. His efforts to be successful despite discrimination, to cross the cultural barriers and to do his part to change the social and political disunity of the world are considered some of the main influences to the Civil Rights Movement, and yet Paul Robeson is a largely unknown name today.

Since Robeson is the only character in the play, aside from a short portrayal at the beginning of his father escaping from slavery, a lot rests on having the perfect actor to portray him. Stogie Kenyatta comes as close as one could hope, although he has been criticized as being slighter than Robeson in both stance and character. However, the inability to find anyone with such a strong presence as the “real” Robeson only makes Robeson seem more super-human. Regardless, Kenyatta obviously puts his heart and soul into this challenging performance, which includes his portraying Robeson in ten vastly different pursuits. “I’m no longer Stogie [when I’m performing],” says Kenyatta. “I’m literally Paul.”

Kenyatta’s ability to transform himself is one of the most gripping aspects of his performance. When the audience first comes in, he jovially greets them with a warm smile, welcoming them to his performance. He obviously respects his audience and tries to foster an intimate relationship with them as a key part of his performance. Minutes later, during the first scene, he has changed from the friendly actor to a run-away slave, then a small boy crying over the death of his mother. The high-intensity first scenes completely draw the viewer into Robeson’s world through Kenyatta’s committed and convincing performance.

After five years of performing this show, Kenyatta thoroughly understands all the ins and outs of Paul Robeson’s life, personality, and character. Kenyatta also has such great insight into his character because he wrote this version of the play himself; the original was an Off-Broadway production by James Earl Jones. Kenyatta has a film-writing background, which he said made this version of the play include aspects that play-writers would never include, such as the five-year-old Paul Robeson at the beginning of the play.

The soundtrack was another strong point of the performance, perfectly selected to match the time period of the each period of Robeson’s life. It includes eerie slave songs, with slaves chanting “damn these chains,” swinging jazz of the ’20s, and even some of Paul’s own songs later on in the play during the musical part of his career. This background piece plays an important role in moving the story along and helping orient the audience to what decade the play is in as it jumps between different scenes.

Kenyatta’s amazing efforts to portray Robeson and the magnificence of Robeson himself are the two aspects in The World is My Home – The Life & Times of Paul Robeson that make this play outstanding despite the possibility of one-man shows being tiresome. Kenyatta serves as a vehicle for bringing Robeson’s message of hope for the minorities in America to a new generation of viewers.

The World is My Home – The Life & Times of Paul Robeson was brought to the Colgate campus by the African American Student Alliance. It was performed in the Palace Theatre on October 8, 2006.