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Ed Bullins, Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at Northeastern University; conference co-organizer Samuel A. Hay, visiting professor of government and law at Lafayette, and Miller Lucky Jr., associate professor of theater at North Carolina A&T State University spoke on “The Significance of the Production History of Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Suzanne Westfall, professor of English at Lafayette.

Throughout his acting career, Paul Robeson faced criticism from directors and others, who said he lacked “technique.”

In December of 1977, not quite two years after Robeson’s death, the Ad Hoc Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson was formed to protest “the inaccurate portrayal of Paul Robeson in a new play by Philip Hayes Dean.”

Miller Lucky Jr. took the podium intent on refuting claims against Robeson’s acting ability.

Samuel A. Hay told the story of how Dean’s one-man play was turned into a Broadway musical that offended many who knew Robeson, how a group of Robeson supporters succeeded in shutting it down, and how a different version of the play, performed in small venues, remains significant today.

Preceding the other two speakers, Ed Bullins offered childhood memories of Robeson’s presence on the living-room mantle of his childhood home in the 1940s and ’50s.

Speaking slowly, quietly, and without a hint of emotion, Bullins recalled three photographs that remained in place on that mantel year after year, explaining that he knew why his mother admired the people in the first two photographs—she’d gone to school with Marian Anderson and liked the boxing style of Joe Louis.

As for the subject of the third photograph, “I can’t remember why Paul Robeson meant so much to her,” he said, explaining that while his mother admired author Ralph Ellison and musicians Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and others, “they could not dislodge the favored three.”

Bullins said his mother spoke little of Robeson. Perhaps she was afraid of being branded as a “commie” and fired from her job of sewing duffle bags and parachutes, he said.

Bullins, who faced blacklisting for his own work years later, said he came to understand some of what Robeson went through and why he should be represented with respect.

“I call for the full revelation of the Paul Robeson play script at this time,” he said.

Later in the presentation, Hay complied, explaining that the original Dean play presented Robeson in a respectful, serious light. Then producer Don Gregory bought the option to produce it on Broadway, and the focus shifted to entertainment.

“At one point, they had Robeson in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee singing—in tails,” Hay said, adding that Charles Nelson Reilly, known as a comic actor, was chosen as director.

The ad hoc committee, including Paul Robeson Jr., author James Baldwin, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, human rights activist Coretta Scott King, and civil rights activist Julian Bond, rallied quickly to protest.

“Would you like to face them?” Hay asked.

The group bought a two-page ad in Variety describing their objections to the production, Hay said.

“The play closed because of pressure by well-organized people who were determined not to not let our idol be desecrated,” he said.

Speaking between Bullins and Hay, Lucky forcefully offered a theory that Robeson, far from using no technique, used what is now known as the Stanislavsky Method, which involves the elements of discipline, emotional recall, and analysis.

Lucky pointed out that Robeson’s father, who carefully drilled him in diction and oration, laid the groundwork, and Robeson’s experience as a high-schooler in singing, speaking, and debate added to it.

As for emotional recall, Lucky pointed out that Robeson had an enormous storehouse of emotions of all kinds, including rage.

“He knew what rage felt like and he applied it to his acting,” Lucky said, explaining that Robeson recalled his feelings when, trying out for the Rutgers football team, team members beat him and intentionally stomped on his hand, causing every fingernail to rip off.

Finally, Lucky said, Robeson was highly analytical, carefully selecting roles to fit his own personality.

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