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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

Samuel A. Hay, visiting professor of government and law at Lafayette, will speak on “The Significance of the Production History of Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 9, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Joining Hay as presenters in this session will be Ed Bullins, Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Northeastern University, and Miller Lucky Jr., associate professor of theater, North Carolina A&T State University. The moderator will be Suzanne Westfall, professor of English at Lafayette.

Samuel A. Hay, visiting professor of government and law at Lafayette, has been seriously studying the life and work of Paul Robeson for close to 30 years.

Yet Hay, a scholar, playwright, and author, feels he still doesn’t understand the full depth of Robeson’s character or the range of his influence.

“It’s almost impossible to get to know such a person,” says Hay, who has played a key role in organizing Lafayette’s April conference on Paul Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

In his quest to understand why and how Robeson pursued and achieved success in so many areas of endeavor, Hay often finds himself asking questions are similar to ones Robeson himself asked, he says.

Hay explains that following the death of his father and role model, Robeson would ask, “What would my father say about this?” or “Do you think I’m doing the right thing, pop?”

Similarly, Hay says, “I’ve often asked about political and social situations, ‘What would Robeson do?’ or ‘What would DuBois do? How would the intellectual giants of African America think about this particular situation?’”

In 1976, Hay recalls, when he was on the faculty at Purdue University, he mentioned Paul Robeson to one of his doctoral students, who replied, “Paul who?” Hay knew something had to be done immediately to spread the word about the legendary figure.

“I went to the head of the black studies department and told him what I wanted to do. I brought people in from around the world for a three-day conference about Paul Robeson,” Hay says. That conference broke new ground and brought to light many of Robeson’s accomplishments that had not been widely discussed previously.

Hay is enthusiastic about Lafayette’s upcoming conference on Robeson.

“When I was asked to put on a conference again, we focused very closely on theme, and that theme is Robeson’s intellectual development,” says Hay, who has convened national symposia focusing on the work Alice Childress, Ed Bullins, and August Wilson in addition to Robeson. “No one has talked about that prior to this, and it’s making the conference quite unique.”

Hay holds a doctorate in theater history and criticism from Cornell, a master’s in playwriting from Johns Hopkins, and a bachelor’s in English and speech and theater from Bethune-Cookman

Hay says he and conference director John T. McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette, hope those who come to the conference knowing little about Robeson will leave as “quasi-experts.”

“Not only did Robeson excel” in athletics, “the guy was a Phi Beta Kappa, a lawyer, an intellectual,” Hay says. “He made a conscious decision that he was really going to learn as much as he could, and he used that information to try to destroy colonialism and racism, the twin evils. He really went on to achieve a ‘graduate education’ by educating himself on everything from African language politics. He wanted to know as much as he could about everything. People don’t know that.”

Highlighting the many intellectual challenges that Robeson took on will expose greater truths on his life, Hay adds.

“People spread all kinds of lies and things about people for all kinds of reasons,” Hay says. “The bottom line is, when someone comes to you with some information about someone, instead of buying into it, if you really take time to investigate, that allows your opinion to based on intelligent investigation as opposed to someone else’s agenda.”

Hay will join Ed Bullins, playwright and Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Northeastern University, and Miller Lucky Jr., associate professor of theater at North Carolina A&T State University, in presenting a session on the significance of the production history of Phillip Hayes Dean’s play Paul Robeson. They will examine criticisms of Robeson’s acting in theater productions, particularly the Dean play, to determine whether or not those criticisms stand up, says Hay.

Hay will speak on the artistic choices Dean made in producing Paul Robeson. Dean’s artistic direction balanced song-and-fun spectacle with Robeson’s serious and substantive views about the rampant racism he experienced throughout his life. Many African Americans resented his artistry, refusing to accept it as accurate, and boycotted the production.

“Most people who came to see a play about Paul Robeson expected to see a protest play, and when faced with Robeson’s human side, well, that upset a lot of people because they wanted protest,” Hay explains.

Hay says he will examine the play in detail from the perspective of a playwright to determine if, in combining song-and-fun spectacle with traditional black theater, or protest, Dean actually created an early bridge between the two theatrical schools.

“And perhaps instead of being boycotted, Dean should have been highly praised for doing so,” Hay adds.

Among the 23 plays Hay has produced are the highly praised Cream and Brown Sugar (1996) and David Richmond (1998). Both won the North Carolina Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival (KC/ACTF) and were invited to KC/ACTF regional competitions respectively. David Richmond won an invitation to perform at the Kennedy Center on April 23-24, 1999, as the Best University Production.

Hay is founder of The National Conference on African American Theatre, Inc. His involvement in the African American theatrical community also includes membership in the Association for Theatre in Higher Education; National Association of Schools of Theatre; Black Theatre Network; National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts; and National Conference on African American Theatre.

He is author of African American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis, published in 1994 by Cambridge University Press, and Ed Bullins: A Literary Biography (1997, Wayne State University Press), which won the 1999 CHOICE Award. The coeditor of the six-volume literature series Focus on Literature, Hay recently edited a study of African American protest drama and theater that will be published by Cambridge.

Hay is currently working on a book about August Wilson. Omoniyi Adekanmbi ’04 assisted him in his research for the book as a participant in the EXCEL Scholars program.

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