Paul Robeson and performance artist Anthony Brown


Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee Paul Robeson, as Joe in a scene from the 1936 film Show Boat, has been the quiet obsession of performance artist Anthony Brown for more than four years as he animates the words and songs of the great performer and civil rights activist in his own rich baritone and dignified stage persona.

(Right) Signe Sundberg-Hall

A boy growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Anthony Brown remembers the family’s home would come alive with the recordings of Paul Robeson singing the spirituals. “My parents played his music and spoke of this man with such admiration and respect,” he says. “From the earliest age, I thought of him with a kind of holy reverence.”

When old enough to investigate Robeson RC’19 on his own, Brown found his admiration only growing. “Here was an educated, articulate African-American man,” says Brown, the founder and executive director of the Peacing It Together Foundation. “He was valedictorian of his 1919 Rutgers class, a professional football player with a law degree from Columbia University, and a theatrical and film star best known for Show Boat and Othello. And he traveled the world singing and speaking out for freedom and justice. For me, he became the ideal for what a black man could become.”

Years later, following a career as a university educator and psychotherapist, Brown, a gifted baritone in his own right who still travels the world singing in the name of peace, set his sights on the man who had such a profound effect on him. He commissioned playwright Andrew Flack to create a multimedia musical documentary, using Robeson’s own words, archival video, and the original arrangements of his songs. The resulting production, I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson’s Life in His Words and Songs, debuted in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2011, and has been performed at colleges and universities ever since. Along the way, Brown has had ample opportunity to imagine what it might be like to be Robeson himself.

"When we started this project, I wasn’t sure I wanted to actually ‘play’ Paul Robeson. Singing the songs wasn’t the problem; it was the thought of what it would take to step into those shoes."

"All the words I speak in the show are Robeson’s own words, either from his autobiography or letters. He wrote with such dignity and confidence. When I speak them, the words inspire a great confidence in me."

"After one performance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when people were on their feet, I was overcome: I couldn’t think of another American in the 20th century who accomplished as much as Robeson in as many different arenas."

"When I’m on stage, I feel his spirit, and I know members of the audiences feel it, too. That’s what moves people. It’s thrilling to see people connect with this genius."

"I never tire of singing Robeson’s signature song, ‘Ol’ Man River.’ It’s about my people and their toil and triumph over generations. Like the river that just keeps rolling along, so does the determination and persistence of kindred spirits who continue to fight for oppressed people around the world."

"The role has certainly evolved for me as I go deeper into his character. It shows—people say I am much more animated now, more emotional."

"Robeson paid a heavy price for being black and for speaking out. But his courage and persistence paved the way for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. As I travel the world singing and speaking out for peace and justice, I am reminded that Paul Robeson paved the way for me, too."

For further information about I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson’s Life in His Words and Songs, visit