Like “Ol’ Man River” Robey Keeps Rolling Along

The 2019 Paul Robeson Theatre Festival took place Aug. 23 - 25 with the theme of Awakening the Past, Present and Future: A Retrospective. This third biennial event was presented in Theatre Four at L.A. Theatre Center in Downtown Los Angeles by actor Ben Guillory, co-founder and producing artistic director of the Robey Theatre Company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Actor Danny Glover is also a Robey co-founder. As Guillory reminded the audience in the sold out intimate space, both the festival and company are named after Paul Robeson.


The son of a slave, Robeson was a trendsetter in athletics, academics, acting, activism, and is probably best known for his deep baritone and singing, especially for his signature song, “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 Broadway musical “Showboat.” (See a clip from the 1936 film version: The multi-talented Renaissance Man was an attorney and star of stage and screen also known for his outspoken pro-Black, pro-communist, pro-Soviet, anti-fascist, anti-racist politics. This incurred the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which blacklisted Robeson during the 1950s.


On opening night, August 23, at 7:00 p.m. the Blue Morning Quintet kicked things off, performing jazz. To mark the Robey’s quarter century anniversary Guillory bestowed awards honoring supporters. This was followed by the staged reading of The Queen of Los Angeles, a new play developed in the Robey Playwrights Lab by playwrights Oscar Arguello, Melvin Ishmael Johnson, Kurt Maxey and Julie Taiwo Oni.


This is a bioplay about Gertrude Baines, an actual historical figure. The daughter of former slaves, Gertrude literally lived long enough to be the world’s oldest human, dying in 2009 at the age of 115 years old! Indeed, Gertrude lived so long that it took two very talented actresses to depict her: The jovial Juanita Jennings as the older Gertrude and Denise Yolén as the youthful, more angsty Gertrude who comes to L.A. as a youngster and is persecuted. Not only because she is Black during the Jim Crow era, but - according to the play - since Gertrude possessed supernatural powers. She supposedly had the power to heal, which I believe earned her the nickname of the Queen of Los Angeles. Gertrude struggles with her gift and the repression she encounters on account of her purported miraculous abilities. When the elderly Gertrude is asked the source of her longevity, Jennings good-naturedly attributes her long life to her diet of “crispy bacon, fried chicken and ice cream.” But of course, one can’t help but wonder what the relationship was between the supercentenarian’s alleged faith healing and her long life.


Juanita Jennings - who has appeared in many movies such as Basic Instinct and TV series like the USA Network’s Pearson and Fox’s Star (with that other “Queen”: Latifah) - is actually considerably younger than the character she portrays in Queen. In an eyebrow-raising scene, the older Gertrude encounters “Barry” Obama (Gregory Hinds) when he makes his first public speech at an anti-apartheid in South Africa rally at Occidental College (where the Left Coast Forum will take place in October) in 1981. She lives long enough to vote for Obama for president because “he’s for the colored people.”


As the younger Gertrude Denise Yolén displays her dramatic range as a thespian. Not only because the character ages and undergoes lots of changes, but because Yolén also currently co-stars in a completely different part in Scraps, a heavy drama set in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, about police deadly use of force against unarmed Blacks. Talent agents, casting directors, etc., should keep their eye on this beautiful, bright actress who epitomizes what Lorraine Hansberry referred to as being “young, gifted and Black.”


The two-act production was punctuated with live jazz music by the Blue Morning Quintet, which enhanced the play’s various moods and modalities. Directed by Bernadette Speakes, Robey’s presentation of The Queen of Los Angeles taught me a lot about somebody I’d never heard of. Dealing with the fascinating topics of faith healing (hey, if Trump gets re-elected that may be the only kind of healthcare most Americans will be able to afford!) and longevity, this staged reading left me wanting more: Experiencing a full production of this play on the Robey’s boards! In any case, the reading ended with another piece by the Blue Morning Quintet and a tasty buffet catered by Shabazz Restaurant and Grill, which included cornbread, collard greens, peach cobbler and - I guess in honor of Miss Gertrude - fried chicken!


The Paul Robeson Theatre Festival continued Saturday, August 24, with matinee and evening performances, plus a 3:00 p.m. show on Sunday, August 25 of A Retrospective that featured highlights of the works presented by Robey Theatre Company over the past 25 years. The program consisted of a mixture of live and taped performances, including:


Souls on Fire by Patrick Sheane Duncan;

Yohen by Philip Kan Gotanda;

For The Love of Freedom (The Haitian Trilogy) by Levy Lee Simon;

The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel by Levy Lee Simon;

Bee-luther-hatchee by Thomas Gibbons;

Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons;

The Emperor’s Last Performance by Melvin Ishmael Johnson;

The River Niger by Joseph A. Walker;

Pity the Proud Ones by Kurt Maxey;

Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan;

Bronzeville by Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk;

Knock Me a Kiss by Charles Smith;

No Place to Be Somebody by Charles Gordone;

Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss;

Birdland Blue by Randy Ross Ph.D.


On Sunday, August 25 at 12:30 p.m., there was a panel discussion on the Black Theatre Aesthetic in Los Angeles.  According to its mission statement, the Robey Theatre Company is dedicated to “develop relevant provocative, and innovative new plays written about the Black experience.” With its third biennial Paul Robeson Theatre Festival, the Robey is fulfilling its raison d’être - and will hopefully continue to do so for at least another 25 years. Just like “Ol’ Man River”, the Robey keeps rolling along. And in doing so, this venerable theatrical company keeps the legacy of activist/actor/singer Paul Robeson alive, well, and still giving hell.


For more info see:


L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is co-author/author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: ).



"The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel" Depicted: Tiffany Coty and Dwain A. Perry. Credit: Tomoko Matsushita.; "Anna Lucasta" Depicted: Ashlee Olivia and Dwain A. Perry. Credit: Tim Alexander. "Knock Me A Kiss" Depicted: Toyin Moses, Jason Mimms. Credit: Tomoko Matsushita. "The Emperor's Last Performance" (captioned); "The River Niger" Depicted: Ben Guillory, Margaret Avery. Photo courtesy of Robey Theatre Company.