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Earlier this month a knee injury suffered by actor Keith David postponed the premiere of his new production of the one-man show Paul Robeson, but the 57-year-old actor didn’t stay down for long. He bounced back into Phillip Hayes Dean’s heralded tribute to the cultural titan and outspoken political activist, and there’s still time to catch it at L.A.’s Ebony Theatre with added shows April 18,19 and 20.
Paul Robeson is directed by its author, who wrote the play in 1977 when it premiered on Broadway starring James Earl Jones only a year after Robeson’s death.
“I became aware of Paul Robeson in the early ’70s, back when I first tried to get his book, Here I Stand, in New York,” David tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I went to several places and was rather badly treated by white owners of the bookstores that I went in who said, ‘I wouldn’t have that book.’”
A renowned actor, singer, social activist, lawyer and All-American college football star, Robeson was a renaissance man who starred in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, Body and Soul and Showboat. In the ’50s, he was persecuted during the HUAC hearings when his passport was suspended for eight years.
Keith David sat down recently with THR to talk about one of his heroes and one of the 20th century’s greatest unsung cultural-political figures.
Which is more astonishing, Robeson’s many accomplishments when the odds were against him, or the level of unwarranted character assassination heaped on him by elected officials?
I challenge you to find anyone else, black, white or indifferent who the United States treated and did what they did to him. They succeeded in making him a nonperson. [In 1950] they took his name off the All-American list of 1917-1918, and they kept if off for 20 years.
When asked if he was a communist he pleaded the Fifth before the committee.
He was not a communist. If anything he was a humanist. He was a man who tried to bring people together for the betterment of mankind, for the betterment of all races. He was certainly for fighting for the rights of black Americans, or for the rights of all. Because of his belief that the workers had to stand up for themselves and to fight for unions, that’s why they wanted to shut down that voice. He was the predecessor to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. He has stated his belief in the principles of scientific socialism, a form of government that is economically, culturally and ethically superior to a system based on production for private profit. Ultimately, a system based on production for private profit is greed. The enemy was capitalism with its fascist attitudes.
His tangle with the government haunted him for the rest of his career.
It’s so deeply embedded into the fabric of society that even today if you talk about communism or even socialism, people still don’t understand what it means. They only have these monstrous associations of Russia and other systems where the abuses of communism are prevalent and none of the benefits. And what I find so completely stupid and detrimental in this country, whether you agree with Mr. Obama or not, the moment he mentions the word “socialism” — only an ass would think that he would try to bring the worst aspects of socialism into the system. There are benefits to a socialist society that would benefit most of us greatly, but the powers that be want to hold on to what they have. The haves want to continue having and they don’t care who or how many have not.
What do you think drove him to put so much on the line?
I believe it was Paul Robeson who said if you have no political stance, that itself is a political statement. An artist cannot afford not to take a stand politically. And if you choose not to, that in itself is a political stance. Like Malcolm X said, “If you don’t stand for something you’ll put up with anything.”
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