This weekend I went to see Paul Robeson Project, a one woman play about the actor/activist Paul Robeson. PRP is a historical/civil rights narrative woven into the autobiography of an important American figure. New York actress Kim Howard plays Robeson, and the play was written by our very own Mimi McGurl (aka theInsomniac).
Mimi and I had a quick chat today as she told me a bit about the play and how it came about. The play will run through Sunday, so if you are in town you can catch it at the legendary women and transpeople theater, WOW Café, in the East Village.
Moon: So how do you feel after launching your show?
Mimi: It feels good. Audiences have responded very well and for the stage it’s in, I'm very happy.
Moon: How did A) you come up with the idea, and B) how long did it take you to pull it all together?
Mimi: Well, Paul Robeson was an extremely prolific gentleman there's a lot to say about him. This show really only scratches the surface. Kim Howard, who plays Paul, and I met at a party two summers ago. She Emailed me with the idea to play Paul and I thought it was a great idea.
Kim Howard. photo by www.tonysavino.com
We met and had coffee and started immersing ourselves in his life and work. Eventually common themes arose that we were both interested so in January I started pairing down all the material we had into to something like a script, and we started rehearsing in February.
Moon: I can see why a young African American actor would be interested in the legacy of Paul, but how about you? Why did you find him compelling, how did you relate to him?
Mimi: There were several things I related to. I could make a big list but I'll start with his identity, as one who wanted to use art to participate in a social change movement. Second was probably that he was extremely scholarly and curious.
Moon: Yeah I think what struck me, as someone who knew nothing about him before seeing your show, was that he had ambitions to affect social change, but because of his color the only place that he would have any influence was to become an actor. Were the arts the only place blacks could flourish in those years?
Mimi: He tried to be a lawyer — put himself through Columbia Law School — but black people were rarely if ever allowed to try cases in public. Of course, he still contended with racial prejudice in the theater/film/music industries but those communities are (if I do say so myself) more open-minded.
Moon: So how much research did you have to put in to get your whole script together. Also explain how you decided to weave the narrative?
Mimi: That's hard to quantify but suffice it to say that some friends now call me the encyclopedia of Paul. Yet, there are still so many more avenues of inquiry I have not tapped.
As for the narrative, I didn't want to work on any existing scripts about his life (of which there are few anyway) so I tried to tell a story of 20th century US History using his life.
Moon: Yeah I felt that as I watched. I liked the way you ended with the visuals of Barack and Michelle Obama.
Mimi: Obama's election seemed an obvious historical marker to contextualize all the civil rights work Robeson did that was forgotten. And yet, there is sooo much more to be done and I think Robeson would be the first to tell that to Obama.
Moon: Also his wife, Essie, was pretty amazing.
Mimi: Recently I've been talking to some friends about telling other stories of unsung women who contributed so much to the arts and social action of the 50s and 60s.
Moon: When does the show end? And then what's next?
Mimi: We have shows this week Thurs Fri Sat. at 8pm and a matinee at 2pm Sunday. We have already had some interest from various organizations and colleges so we'll keep working on it and hopefully Kim can tour it for a long time.