Caro Meets Festivals Interview Theatre Interview

Tayo Aluko: Theatre plus civil rights, The Paul Robeson Art Is A Weapon Festival

By | Published on Tuesday 24 September 2013

Tayo Aluko has been performing his one man show about late performer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, for a number of years now.

When we saw it at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago, our reviewer called it a “gem of a production” and praised its star’s charismatic and passionate performance.

Since then, it’s been all over the world and back, but now it’s set to be the centrepiece of a whole new festival, organised by Aluko himself. The event will consist of discussions, talks, and performances of all types, with Robeson and civil rights as the focus, and will feature contributions from politicians, historians and commentators, including a few big names such as Tony Benn and Yasmin Alhibai-Brown.

CM: We first came across ‘Call Mr Robeson’ at the Edfringe back in 2010. What has happened to the show since then, has it continued to be performed?
TA: Well, one person I met at the festival helped me eventually get to perform the play at Carnegie Hall in New York on my 50th birthday! Apart from that, I have been touring it around the UK and internationally – USA, Canada, Jamaica, and the big difference between now and 2010 is that the bookings are quite regular now.

CM: Has the show changed and developed since its first performances?
TA: Its first performances were actually at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. It changed quite a lot over the next few years and continues to change, but the changes are now becoming very subtle – from the things I say, the pacing, and most recently, the way I age Robeson’s character progressively on stage. Although I have lost count of the number of times I have performed the part, it still fascinates and interests me every time.

CM: What first attracted to you the subject of Paul Robeson, and what made you want to create a performance about him?
TA: I was told by a woman who heard me sing one day in 1995 that I reminded her of him. That was probably the first time I had heard his name. Having heard it though, I stumbled across his biography in the library a little later and read it. It is an epic story in the life of a tremendously remarkable man, and the fact that he had once been one of the most famous people on the planet barely 50 years ago and is relatively unknown today because of other people’s deliberate efforts to write him out of consciousness angered me. I saw it almost as a personal challenge to get his story told.

CM: What made you decide to create a festival inspired by him?
TA: Getting a four-week run at the Tristan Bates Theatre was a dream come true. The producers casually asked if I could think of anything else I might want to bring to the space to celebrate Black History Month, and the ideas just started flowing! I had in previous years put on day-long events here and there, and I guess those gave me the confidence to dive into what I must admit looks really impressive. The people taking part are generally (though not 100%) of a political persuasion that tend towards Robeson’s world view, which is far from dominant today – but it is nice to get people like that together!

CM: How has the festival come together, and how long has it been in the pipeline? Were people keen to get involved?
TA: Since April, I would say. The lady who directed ‘Call Mr. Robeson’ – Olusola Oyeleye – had been saying for a long time that it would be good to get Tony Benn to see the play, and once the festival idea came about, his name was first on the list to approach – with a little trepidation, given his status and his age. He responded with a yes almost immediately, and I used that fact to invite other people. His reaction, and the reaction of practically everybody else, was a sign of the respect that Paul Robeson commands in many circles in this country and around the world. The diversity of their own backgrounds is testament to the very wide reach of his influence and the esteem in which he is held.

CM: Do you expect the festival to become an annual event?
TA: Yes, I do. The first one has been tough to organise, and I have done it with an Arts Council grant and little else, but assuming it is successful, I’d like to think it will be annual, but I’m also thinking national and international.

CM: Do you think looking back at Robeson’s work as a civil rights campaigner can inform the way we approach civil rights in the present day?
TA: I think it can. One of the many remarkable things about him was that he was one of the first to see that the struggle for Black civil rights in America could and should not be divorced from struggles for poor white people in America, and for poor and oppressed people all over the world. I always remind people that it was when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King broadened their own visions to be more inclusive of all races and issues that they were assassinated. Today, it remains easier for activists to be single-issue campaigners than to keep their eyes on “the big picture”, and in fact, that is what governments and their media try to keep them doing. Robeson therefore has a lot to teach us today.

CM: A great many different events and performances are taking place as part of the festival – is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?
TA: From the non-political singing sensation of Yinka Davies coming from Nigeria, to Tony Benn, to the short play about Harriet Tubman from Canada, to the potentially controversial talk about African Reparations, it’s all really exciting and wonderful. I intend to attend every single one myself, so unlike most other people, I won’t have to go through the agony of choosing one over another.

CM: Do you have any further projects planned?
TA: I have a number of ideas for new work to write, and they’ll all be inspired by stories of African history, pride, resistance and beauty. I will hopefully find the time and space to start one of them in the next few months. I also like the idea of creating more festivals. Oh, and a bit of work in my other field of property development, which I have taken an extended sabbatical from.

The Paul Robeson Art Is A Weapon Festival runs from 30 Sep to 26 Oct at the Tristan Bates Theatre. For more info, see this site here and book tickets through the venue website here.

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