A stirring show

Willard White's Tribute to Paul Robeson, Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, February 17 Although Sir Willard White is Jamaican and Paul Robeson, an American there are many similarities in their lives and careers.

Willard White's Tribute to Paul Robeson, Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, February 17

Although Sir Willard White is Jamaican and Paul Robeson, an American there are many similarities in their lives and careers. Because of the inevitable comparisons White was reluctant to be associated with Robeson, a man he admired, but eventually fate intervened, resulting in the tribute show.

In the company of two fine musicians, pianist (and narrator), Neil Thornton, and acoustic guitarist/cellist Richard Bolton, Willard White traced Robeson's life, quoting Robeson's own words and singing from his repertoire, starting with Robeson's relationship with his father, a former slave who was a firm believer in racial equality.

This influence laid the foundation for Robeson's life-long crusade to help the oppressed. Not surprisingly, Negro Spirituals formed a large part of the programme and included Deep River as well as several songs reflecting the struggle of the blacks in America in the 1920s. Willard White sang in a relaxed, understated manner giving no indication of his powerful operatic voice but emphasising his rich, warm tonal qualities. His diction was superb and he lived his persona with a look or a gesture with every song relating a story.


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In 1923, in a theatre in Greenwich, Robeson became the first man ever to sing a Negro Spiritual on a concert stage. Although he qualified as a lawyer he made his career in singing, acting and films. As he gave concerts throughout Europe he added local folk songs to his repertoire. To illustrate this White gave a first-rate rendition of Oh No John and a moving account of An Eriskay Love Lilt.

Following the interval Willard sang with more energy and emotion when he focused on Robeson's continual striving, as a political campaigner, to help the under-dogs including the Jews, the Welsh miners and the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War; he had great sympathy for the Russian people and socialism. The songs reflected these countries.

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It was a stirring show admirably presented by White, Thornton and Bolton to an appreciative audience who were reluctant to let them leave the platform.

Judith Newman

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