Actor/activist Robeson honored by O'Neill Foundation | February 6, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Newsfront - February 6, 2009

Actor/activist Robeson honored by O'Neill Foundation

Son tours O'Neill's Tao House, comments on Inauguration

by Geoff Gillette

Members of the O'Neill Foundation met Jan. 21 at the Crow Canyon Country Club to honor legendary actor and social activist Paul Robeson for his work and his relationship with writer Eugene O'Neill.

Robeson's son, Paul Robeson Jr., 82, and his wife Marilyn flew to Danville from their home in New York to accept the Tao House Award for distinguished service to the American Theater for Robeson, who died in 1976 at the age of 77.

During his visit, Robeson Jr. toured the famed Tao House, and talked about the relationship his father had with O'Neill, who authored two plays for which Robeson became famous, "The Emperor Jones" and "All God's Chillun Got Wings."

"As an award, it's coming full circle," said Robeson, "and seeing the Tao House today made me realize what a great genius O'Neill was. The images he created for actors to use ... I think some of the images he made enabled my father to be a transformational figure in representing the black male image in theater and on the concert stage."

He added, "I think that connection O'Neill had with my father had a lasting effect on popular culture."

Robeson noted that singing and theater were only part of his father's life. "He was one of the prime movers in the civil rights movement in the 1940s," he stated. "He challenged the racism in America a decade before the civil rights movement."

Using the powerful characters created in O'Neill's works, Robeson became more than what other African American actors were able to achieve at that time. "He was one of the primary movers in that transformational character, not just the typical Sambo character," he continued. "He was the first man to play leading men with power and dignity."

Robeson's success in both theater and film was cut short, however, when his social activism led to him being blacklisted. "He didn't get a chance to do things like Macbeth and King Lear and plays that black actors who came along subsequently had the chance to do. I don't think he had a chance to fulfill all of his dreams in the theater."

His father's strong stance on civil rights and the work that he did to further that cause made the inauguration of the first African American president a powerful and moving occasion for him. Robeson said, "This day and the events that have happened represent an opportunity for transformational change. The demography has changed, the generations have changed, the political and economic environments have changed."

When asked how he thought his father would have reacted to the inauguration, Robeson said, "As the son of a slave, he knew in his lifetime he'd never see something like this. He told me I might live to see it, so this day meant a great deal to me."

Robeson spent Inauguration Day in San Ramon, before touring the Tao House. He said that the sense of unity among those watching the inauguration and the hope inspired by the new president's speech were things he doesn't think the country has seen in decades.

"I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime and neither did my father. Probably we'd have to go back to the times of World War II and Lincoln for a similar surge of hope," he said.