The World Is My Home - The Life Of Paul Robeson
Review by Willard Manus

Paul Robeson was one of the most important figures of the 20th century.
Actor, singer, scholar, activist, he dominated his era and redefined the black male image. He enjoyed great success until the McCarthy era, when America turned on him for his leftist politics. The government not only feared him but hounded and blacklisted him, making it impossible for him to make a living.

Stogie Kenyatta dramatizes these aspects of Robeson’s life in his stirring one-man play, THE WORLD IS MY HOME. The actor has been performing the play for many years in theaters and schools, making the bookings on his own, taking the production not just to venues in the USA but the Caribbean and South America as well. Now, as a way of keeping the show alive in the midst of the pandemic, Kenyatta is streaming a video of his performance over (in collaboration with theaters like the Santa Monica Playhouse).

A powerful, dynamic actor, Kenyatta lights up the stage from beginning to end, not just emoting but singing, dancing and reciting Shakespeare (Robeson played “Othello” on Broadway and the West End, only the second black actor to ever perform the role). Kenyatta also has much fun impersonating such stars of the Harlem Renaissance as Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters.

But the fun goes only so far in THE WORLD IS MY HOME. Robeson for the most part had to fight to find success in racist, segregated America. His first job after law school, for example, was at a prestigious New York law firm. He had to quit the job because none of the firm’s white secretaries would take dictation from a black man.

Robeson then opened his own law office and struggled to survive. What saved him from poverty was his voice, a deep dark bass that led to offers to sing and then act professionally.

Kenyatta delves into the key aspects of Robeson’s life: the influence of his father, a freed slave turned pastor, had on him; attending Rutgers University (where he was not only an All American football player but Phi Beta Kappa); meeting and marrying his wife, Eslanda; his triumph in shows like “Othello” and “Showboat;” becoming the most popular, highest-paid concert singer in the world.

At all times, though, Robeson found himself pitted against racists and never felt truly accepted by white society–-not until he went to the Soviet Union in 1934, where, as he said, “For the first time in my life I felt like a whole man, a free man.”

Robeson’s unwavering love for the Soviet Union is what got him in trouble with McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and the other witch-hunters of the 1940s and 50s. He was kept under government surveillance, his phones were tapped, his passport confiscated. These problems affected him grievously: he went broke, turned to drink, and had mental problems. Yet ultimately his warrior’s heart carried him through and he remained true to his conviction that “it is the mission of the artist to save the soul of humanity.”