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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.

Actors Stephen McKinley Henderson, J.D. Hall, John Peak, and Ron Dortch will present a reader’s theater production of Paul Robeson’s autobiography Here I Stand at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, in Interfaith Chapel, Hogg Hall (see conference schedule). The session will also include a performance by the Lafayette Concert Choir, a community dance ensemble, and gospel choruses.

“Everything else in the conference is about Paul Robeson, so I want people to hear Paul Robeson,” says Samuel A. Hay, visiting professor of government and law at Lafayette and co-director of Lafayette’s conference on Robeson’s history and development

The selections chosen for a readers’ theater production of Paul Robeson’s autobiography “will show three facets of Robeson, his life, his scholarship, and his artistry. This brings out his voice and perspective on himself, his family, and his friends,” Hay says.

The event reunites the Hay with Stephen McKinley Henderson, J.D. Hall, John Peak, and Ron Dortch, all of whom Hay taught as a professor of theater. Henderson directed two of Hay’s plays about Robeson, Robeson Place Singers and American Passport, in which Hall, Peak, and Dortch played leading roles.

Excited that his former students will be participating in the conference, Hay notes that each has gone on to successful acting careers, with extensive theater, film, and television credits to their names.

Reader’s theater is an effective instrument for conveying the messages of documents, letters, and personal exchanges. It delivers content and meaning true to original form, rather than representation. The audience, Hay says, can “forget the action of theater and engage the intellect.”

For Henderson, who has worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theaters, and in television and film, participating in the conference is an opportunity to honor Robeson, whom he says influenced him greatly during his formative years as an actor and beyond.

“What Paul Robeson did was make us, as African American actors, understand that we could be valid contributors to the classic forms of any culture. He made me feel comfortable as an actor,” Henderson says. “When I was preparing to do Shakespeare at Juilliard in 1968 I had previously done just a little Shakespeare in high school, so it was a great help to get my hands on a copy of Robeson playing Othello and performing in an opera.”

Henderson is an associate professor of acting in the department of theater and dance at the State University of New York at Buffalo. On stage he has played Azdak in Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Creon in Antigone, Troy in Fences, Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor, Sizwe in Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Sitting Bull in Indians, Solyony in Three Sisters, and Turnbo in August Wilson’s Jitney, which ran an unprecedented full LORT (League of Resident Theaters) season during 1998-99 in Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Rochester, and Chicago.

Jitney played Los Angeles and New York in 2000, earning Drama Desk, Obie, and Audelco awards for each actor as members of the outstanding ensemble of the New York season. In Los Angeles, Henderson won the NAACP Theatre Award for Outstanding Dramatic Performance by a Male as well as the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for featured actor as Turnbo in Jitney.

Henderson made his first Broadway appearance and second Kennedy Center appearance as Stool Pigeon in August Wilson’s King Hedley II during the 2001 season. He made his off-Broadway directorial debut in 1992 with ALI! at the John Houseman Studio Theatre. This homage to the legendary boxing champion garnered an Obie and two Audelco Awards when it moved to the Sheridan Square Theatre. In the summer of 1993, the production moved to the Mermaid Theater in London. Its illustrious production history culminated in the summer of 1996 in Atlanta when the Olympic Committee included ALI! in the Olympic Arts Festival.

Henderson’s production of The Meeting by Jeff Stetson for the St. Louis Black Repertory was brought to Kennedy Center’s Theatre Lab as part of the Imagination Celebration in 1994. He was a contributing director for the First International Women’s Playwright Conference in 1988. Other plays include David Mamet’s Oleanna, Amiri Baraka’s Great Goodness of Life, and Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno.

Robeson’s character also left its mark on Henderson.

“The fact that Robeson was a citizen of the world was the main influence He made it imperative to travel to see other countries, other perspectives, other positions not native to one’s own. I have traveled myself and I have traveled with my son to make sure he understands other cultures,” Henderson says.

“Robeson kept his honor and integrity; he showed a great strength of character that one has to have in order to survive. And he was an example that one shouldn’t look for praise and accolades from the powers that be. Virtue is its own reward – that should be the source of motivation, rather the pursuit of public adulation.”

Henderson also points to the awareness and pride Robeson gave African Americans about their contributions, saying Robeson “was a herald of the whole culture.”

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