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Activist and artist remembered, honoured

March 2012

Now that the 2012 Academy Awards have ended, we remember the 1979 documentary winner, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, narrated by Sidney Poitier.

Picture of Paul Robeson at the National Archives. Photo: Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1888-1964

Robeson, who died in 1976, was a renaissance man of the 20th century. He was a scholar, athlete, lawyer, leading stage and film actor and concert singer, as well as the most prominent civil rights activist 30 years before the movement of the 1960s.

He performed often in Canada, selling out 13 times in Montreal between 1932 and 1948.

In 1942, he sang to 12,000 people at the Forum on a program that included a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt. Also reciting a poem at that event was 8-year-old local Stan Asher, now a radio host at Radio Centreville.

Robeson raised funds for Americans for the Second World War effort. But four years after the Allied victory, the U.S. government illegally withdrew his passport because of his civil-rights work. His bookings dropped, his income plummeted, he was removed from the All-American Football Hall of Fame and relegated to performing in church basements or union halls.

His return to Montreal was at the smallish Arbeiter Rink (today’s La Sala Rossa).

In 1978, James Earl Jones portrayed him in a one-man show. Although a TV version aired in 1982, apparently no one attempted another one-man show until 2002, when Dawson professor Tom Fox did so. He repeated it on March 1 at the Atwater Library to benefit the Black Theatre Workshop.

Only after renowned biographer Martin Duberman wrote his classic biography of Robeson in 1988 and the U.S. government issued a 37-cent postage stamp in 2004 did enough interest develop so that after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, other fine actor singers developed one-man shows, some à la Hal Holbrook with Mark Twain.



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