Paul Robeson: Life Story of Famed Performer and Civil Rights Activist Offers Relevant Message for Today¹s Audiences

Paul Robeson, a musical and spoken portrayal of the world-famous scholar, actor, singer, lawyer, all-American athlete and civil rights activist, performs at Chapman Cultural Center in Spartanburg, SV, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 864-542-ARTS (2787). Tickets are $20-$30 for general admission seating. The show is produced and presented by United in Music, Inc.IMGP5349

Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthroughs in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down, and before the Civil Rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel Washington, before Sam Jackson and Jesse Jackson, there was Paul Robeson!

The performance stars Jason McKinney as Robeson, the African-American Renaissance man who rose to prominence in multiple arenas at a time when racism and segregation was rampant in the United States. Robeson used his fame as a performer to become a voice for people who were marginalized both at home and abroad. Despite a hugely successful career on stage and in films and international popularity, he was eventually silenced and his career effectively ended by prejudice and McCarthyism. Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson sheds light on the life of this courageous, influential and complex man whose message remains relevant for today’s audiences.

United in Music’s Christopher Bagley co-stars as Robeson’s long-time collaborator Lawrence Brown. “Paul Robeson’s life story reminds us of the important work he did so bravely to advance the civil rights discussion,” said Bagley, “and those issues could not be any less important today. We are reminded every day that there is still so much work to be done to end racial discrimination.”

The play is written by Phillip Hayes Dean, who recently passed away on April 14, 2014. It brings attention to the important Robeson legacy which for too long had faded into the shadows of American lore. Although the production attracted a degree of controversy when first presented in 1979 with James Earl Jones in the lead role, Paul Robeson went on to have two highly successful runs on Broadway in 1988 and 1995 with Avery Brooks as Robeson.


Robeson Biography                     

Born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Leroy Robeson grew up the youngest of five children. His father was an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister while his mother came from a distinguished abolitionist Quaker family. At age 17, Robeson received an academic scholarship to Rutgers University, where, despite racism from his teammates, he excelled in sports, receiving multiple varsity letters (baseball, football, basketball and track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He received his Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year and graduated as class valedictorian. He attended Columbia University Law School and, in the early 1920s, worked as a lawyer in New York. Racism at the firm drove him to leave the law profession, but he soon found success as a singer and actor.

As an actor, Robeson was one of the first Black men to play serious roles in the primarily white American theater. In 1924, he landed the lead in “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and the following year starred in the London staging of “The Emperor Jones,” both by playwright Eugene O’Neill.  He became wildly popular as an actor and singer, and his star turn in Showboat in 1928 wowed London audiences with his rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” which was to become his signature song. The tune would also serve to help him become one of the most popular concert singers of his time. In addition, he performed in a number of films, including a re-make of “The Emperor Jones” (1933), “Song of Freedom” (1936) and the movie version of “Showboat” (1936).

He became internationally well-known and beloved, and used that fame to fight for justice and peace. At the height of his popularity, Robeson was a national symbol and a cultural leader in the war against fascism abroad and racism at home. Although admired and befriended by such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Louis, Harry Truman and Lena Horne, his outspoken defense of civil liberties sparked the ire of conservatives trying to maintain the status quo.

Robeson regularly spoke out against racial inequality and injustice around the world. A champion of working people and organized labor, he performed at strike rallies, conferences and labor festivals worldwide.  In the late 1940s, he openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the armed forces of a government that tolerated racism. A passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly to build friendship and respect between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Because of his outspokenness, he was labeled a communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios. Eighty of his concerts were cancelled and the State Department barred him from renewing his passport in order to perform overseas.

Though his passport was eventually reinstated eight years later, the damage was done. He suffered from depression and related health problems and died from a stroke in 1976 at age 77.


Performer Bios

McKinney (Paul Robeson)

Originally from Milwaukee, WI, Jason McKinney graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he studied voice with soprano Marilyn Taylor and tenor Glenn Siebert and was the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards. McKinney has been featured with the North Carolina Symphony and has performed to critical acclaim in Europe, Mexico, the U.S. and Australia. When not on stage, he sings as Klezmer cantorial soloist for his synagogue in Spartanburg, SC, and composes liturgical music for Temple Emmanuel in Winston Salem, NC, where he now resides. He is the bass soloist at Centenary United Methodist Church, also in Winston Salem.


Bagley (Lawrence Brown)

Christopher Bagley is a native of Baltimore who has been involved with music since age 5 when his father began teaching him to play piano. He has acted in, directed, musically directed or accompanied more than 50 theatrical productions throughout the U.S. He continues to be in demand across the country as a guest artist. He currently serves as Director of Music at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Graham, NC and runs FundAbility, a company he founded which offers a range of services to small nonprofits.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.