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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.

Norman Roberts, professor of communications/theater at Northampton Community College, will serve as moderator of a session featuring a talk on “Robeson’s Research for His Roles in Films and Plays” by Charles Musser, professor of film and American studies at Yale University, at 3:30 p.m. Friday, April 8 (Plenary Session 8).

As a scholar of theater and director of more than 100 plays who has studied Paul Robeson’s performances and influence on the theater, Norman Roberts, professor of communications/theater at Northampton Community College, sees Lafayette’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual as an important vehicle to return Robeson to his proper place in theater history.

Reaching to a bookshelf for a theater textbook Roberts says, “Open up a theater text used in colleges, look in the index, and you might not see Paul Robeson there. And he ought to be.

“I don’t think it would be unfair to say that if Marlon Brando had faced the resistance that Paul Robeson did, we wouldn’t know much about Brando,” claims the veteran director. “People, even theater people, don’t know how important he Robeson is.”

Roberts cites the connection with all people that Robeson was able to bring to his characters as evidence of the actor’s brilliance and influence.

“What Robeson did as an actor was create this connection with the soul of all mankind,” he says. “He was connecting with something deeper and more fundamental than shallow cultural stereotypes. He spent his whole life trying to tap that which makes us more than what we do, or what culture says we are.”

Roberts sees Robeson’s well-known mastery of languages as one, but certainly not the only, tool he used to connect with his audiences as an actor or a singer.

“His deep concentration on languages and music, finding the commonality and strength at the core of the world’s many cultures, is what made him reach what is universal, what we have in common, what is not culturally bound,” says Roberts.

Roberts feels that Robeson’s practice of communicating in different languages enabled him to begin to recognize the “commonality of all peoples,” and, thereby, to find it in his own work.

Robeson’s performance in Othello is particularly noteworthy to Roberts, who directed the play last year at Northampton Community College.

Robeson was the first black actor to play Othello on Broadway. The play ran 295 performances, a record for Shakespeare on Broadway that still stands, and evidence of the depth of the character Robeson developed.

While rehearsing Othello, Robeson would work on his lines in different languages and consider the character from broader cultural views, Roberts notes.

“Robeson did far more rehearsal in terms of finding the man, finding the character, finding the human being, becoming the process this extraordinary person that was connecting to the core of Othello,” says Roberts.

“And that, too, is what the character of Othello is trying to accomplish, this commonality of us all. The character must be attempting this, or he is just the sum of his cultural parts. And that wouldn’t be a very good tragedy. Tragedy has to be more interesting than that. Othello is a character who is connected to all of us; that’s why the character is so loved.”

He sees Paul Robeson as an Othello.

Othello is about the fight for a human being to be considered a human being and not to be bound by prejudices,” says Roberts. “ So to play Othello must have been very interesting for Robeson, because the play not only speaks to him, but says what he, as an artist, is trying to say.

“It is interesting that the character Othello fails, because Paul Robeson fails, too, in the sense that he, too, was done in. He comes back, after his passport is renewed, as an actor and a person who is important in the world and wants to take up where he left off, but his health is gone and he never recovers,” Roberts concludes.

Roberts notes Robeson’s status as a forerunner of artist-activists.

“He wasn’t simply saying,‘What I have to say speaks through art.’ He took advantage of the platform that the art allowed him to extend what he had to say outside of [his performances].”

Roberts cites this as the Robeson quote most that is meaningful to him: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

Roberts speaks of an article written by world-renowned theatre and opera director Peter Brook that discusses theater as an instrument of social and governmental criticism, “the mirror that Shakespeare talks about, the mirror that ‘shows the forms and pressures of our time.’”

“Finding a common thread in various peoples, trying to see if we can communicate on a human level that is deeper than simply cultural, whether there are things that are purely human – these are things that the modern theatre is attempting to do,” Roberts says.

“This is what Paul Robeson was doing in the 30s and 40s. His ideas are really current.”

In Roberts’ mind the importance of the Lafayette conference is the opportunity to delve deeper into Robeson’s art: “not just to put good dressing on him for the important events he was part of, but to identify what it was Robeson did that enabled him to reach deeply into himself and present to the world the essence of being human.”

“That would be better than a eulogy, and would ask the rest of us to use him as an example of how to make deeper connections as artists than the surface ones – which is what Robeson did,” he says.

“So if that is what he could become known for, that would be wonderful.”

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