West Country radical? : a celebration of Paul Robeson in Devon

Paul Robeson at Dartington. Source: Dartington Archive, courtesy of Dartington Trust and The Elmgrant Trust

Most of us know the West Country as home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their struggle for trade union rights. It is less well known that Dartington Hall in Devon is where the Labour Party manifesto Let Us Face the Future was written. This set the direction for the 1945 Labour government, founding the NHS and establishing our modern welfare state.

But Dartington Hall was already a centre for radical ideas. In 1930 Paul Robeson, an extraordinary actor, singer and athlete, came to Dartington to rehearse Othello, which he was performing with Peggy Ashcroft in the West End. It was the first time in 100 years that a black actor had taken the role, and a milestone in theatre history.

Robeson was internationally famous for his art, and equally famous for speaking out against colonialism abroad, and racism in his native US. His visit to Dartington coincided with a great flowering of creative and radical experimentation. Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, a wealthy Anglo-American couple, had bought the estate in 1925 and developed it as a laboratory for new social and artistic ideas. The  ‘Dartington Experiment’ would soon become a refuge for artists and activists fleeing fascist Europe. In the years after his visit, Robeson went on to found the Council on African Affairs in 1937, and spoke uncompromisingly of the links between white supremacy and fascism.

His unapologetic stance on social and civil rights would eventually lead to Robeson being blacklisted. He was brought before the United States’ House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and charged with being a communist. In his eloquent and dignified testimony, he told the Committee: “You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Now the history of Robeson’s visit to Dartington and the political ferment of the time are captured in a multimedia live art event, Here I Stand. Actor-producer Patrice Naiambana will explore Paul Robeson’s life and art with a group of Devon-based and international artists, including Harold George, choreographer and dancer of the multi-award-winning ‘Making Men’ dance film, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director of the Young Vic. Speakers, including renowned decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo, will join online from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Europe.

The title Here I Stand is taken from Robeson’s book of the same name, which details his political ideas, his support for radical movements ‒ from the Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil war, to striking Welsh miners ‒ and his silencing by the US Government. In 1937, as fascism drew its net around Europe, he said: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative”.

Here I Stand will unfold at Dartington’s Studio One on Saturday 8 April. It combines storytelling, diaspora dance, traditional West African instruments and live contemporary sound design by Devon musician Ric White. There will also be a traditional Syrian buffet and a chance to discuss, with leading decolonial thinkers, issues raised by Robeson’s life.

Here I Stand; publicity image and flyer Copyright Josiah Johnson

The Decolonial Salon is curated and initiated by Patrice Naiambana, an African performing artist from Sierra Leone who is based in Devon. He was awarded a Fringe First for his solo show The Man Who Committed Thought and has worked extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company, The National and The Globe. His recent screen credits include Death in Paradise, Criminal Record, Damsel, The Baby and Game of Thrones.

To find out more about this aspect of Devon’s radical history, and to book tickets, visit the Box Office at Dartington Trust.