Baritone of Freedom

Chuck Cooper portrays Paul Robeson in a monodrama at Passage Theatre in Trenton, May 8-26.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   One of the most esteemed roles in Chuck Cooper’s career was playing a thoroughly debauched character. In 1997, Mr. Cooper won a Tony Award for his portrayal of "Memphis" in The Life. Set in the early 1980s in the seedy nightlife of pre-Giuliani-era Times Square, Mr. Cooper’s character was — to put it politely — a "procurer of love for sale."
   It’s a far cry from the figure of Paul Robeson Mr. Cooper will portray in the eponymous musical monodrama by Phillip Hayes Dean. The veteran actor gives a hearty laugh when this difference is pointed out.

"(Robeson) was so much larger than life, so grand," says veteran actor Chuck Cooper. "He was the quintessential Renaissance man. While I have my talents, it’s nothing compared to this guy."

   "I daresay there’s a gap between the two," Mr. Cooper says. "Bad guys are always fun to play because you get to do all those naughty things you can’t get away with in real life. The challenge of bringing to life such an amazing human being as Paul Robeson is as exciting as playing a low-down character like Memphis."
   Mr. Cooper is a little daunted by stepping into the role of such a remarkable man for the acclaimed Paul Robeson, presented by the Passage Theatre in Trenton, May 8-26.
   "(Robeson) was so much larger than life, so grand," he says. "He was the quintessential Renaissance man. While I have my talents, it’s nothing compared to this guy. That being said, I look forward to bringing what I can to the role."
   Born in Princeton in 1898, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University where, despite violence and racism from teammates, he excelled in three sports, winning 15 varsity letters in baseball, basketball and track. He attended Columbia Law School and joined a law firm, then left the practice to pursue his artistic ambitions.
   Famed for his deep bass-baritone voice, Robeson toured internationally, promoting African-American spirituals and sharing the cultures of other nations.
   He was applauded for his dramatic work in Othello and Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, as well as in numerous films. Robeson’s dedication to international and interracial peace gained him the friendship of such luminaries as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, author W.E.B. DuBois and Albert Einstein. He also had some formidable foes, including Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who accused Robeson of being a Communist during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. The smearfest nearly ended Robeson’s career. Robeson maintained his dignity and hopes for equality, laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s.
   Surprisingly, even with a career this outstanding, the memory of Paul Robeson has faded for many people, especially younger generations. Mr. Cooper himself was unaware of Robeson until his death in 1976.
   "A friend told me this great man had died," Mr. Cooper says. "I went and did some research on his life and was saddened when I found out this giant of a human being had come and gone without my knowledge.
   "Lots of people don’t know about him, though. When people ask me what I’m working on right now and I tell them I’m doing a play about Paul Robeson, they don’t know who I’m talking about. Hopefully by doing this production, it’ll help shed some light on how important he was, how proud we should be of what he stood up to say."
   A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Mr. Cooper comes from talented stock. His father was an actor in Cleveland’s famed Karamu House.
   Mr. Cooper began to immerse himself in theater at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, gaining an equally impressive footing in musicals and dramas.
   He began his professional career in regional theater, with a healthy dose of Shakespearean roles — including Othello with the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival — and numerous off-Broadway gigs. Mr. Cooper has appeared in seven Broadway productions, recently as Billy Flynn in Chicago. Like many stage actors, Mr. Cooper found regular work with several New York-based television dramas, notably the long-running Law and Order. He’s also been in quite a few films, including Requiem for a Dream, The Hurricane and The Juror.
   Directed by Jeffery V. Thompson, Paul Robeson features Mr. Cooper and accompanist Cary Gant onstage. The play originally opened on Broadway in 1978 starring James Earl Jones, then traveled to New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre, re-opening on Broadway in 1995. The musical traces Robeson’s life through a series of vignettes. Robeson’s signature songs, "Old Man River" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," are featured in the show.
   Mr. Cooper reflects that Robeson was a generation before ’60s-era African-American Civil Rights leaders, but it was his early efforts that helped make the movement possible.
   "Robeson did take a backseat in the ’60s, but by then he had paid his dues," Mr. Cooper says. "The FBI made a concerted effort to turn the black leaders against him, and that hurt him greatly. He also suffered from personal challenges, including depression and concern over his wife’s illness. By the ’60s, Paul Robeson might have been a little exhausted by all this.
   "I hope the audience comes away (from the play) with a better understanding of the breadth and scope of who Paul Robeson was. I hope we can give them an appreciation of how lucky America was to have him and understand what a trailblazer he was. Even though he was not appreciated as much as he should have been in his lifetime, I hope we can fully appreciate him now."
Passage Theatre presents Chuck Cooper in Paul Robeson, at the Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and
Montgomery streets, Trenton, May 8-26. Preview tickets cost $15; tickets for opening night and reception $30;
regular tickets $20. Show times: May 8-11, 16-18, 24-25, 8 p.m.; May 12, 19, 26, 5 p.m.; May 15, 22, 6 p.m.
For information, call (609) 392-0766. On the Web: