Honouring the celebrated actor, singer and political campaigner Paul Robeson in Chichester

Tory Kittles
Tory Kittles

You can’t possibly mimic Paul Robeson. That would be to do him a disservice, says Tory Kittles who embodies him in 8 Hotels in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.

“But what you can do his honour him,” says Tory. “I think it comes down to the script, and what I am drawing on for this role is his writing and other people’s writing. You certainly cannot mimic him, but what you can try to do is to learn from him.”

The play starts in 1944 in America.

Celebrated actor, singer and political campaigner Paul Robeson – forever associated with Ol’ Man River – is touring the country as Othello.

His Desdemona is the brilliant young actress Uta Hagen. Her husband, the Broadway star José Ferrer, plays Iago.

All the actors are friends. But in mid-century American society, they are not all equals.

As the tour goes on, the boundaries between the on-stage passions and their off-stage lives begin to blur.

Soon the chemistry between Robeson and Hagen and the rivalry between Robeson and Ferrer is every bit as dangerous as that between their famous characters. But there are dangers from the outside too.

“There is a respect, I think, that automatically comes from playing this role,” says Los Angeles-based Tory in his first UK stage part.

“Robeson himself, his life, there are so many ways into it, through his biography, so many ways to discover his artistic journey, his albums, his life as an activist, as a person, as a man and as a performer.

“With this particular play he was able to do 296 performances on Broadway, which is still the longest-running Shakespeare on Broadway, and then they took it on tour from coast to coast, from 1944 to 1945 which was really pioneering.

“It was ground-breaking.

“It was the first time an African-American had played Othello on Broadway. It had been done before in the UK, but this was the first time in New York… and then they took it from this liberal city to other places, showing something that had never been done before.

“ It was a huge risk.

“There is a bit in the play where they are staying near the northern headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan…

“It was a great risk to their own lives, but they were pioneers. They were really using art as a tool.

“On his gravestone it says ‘The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.’

“He was a very principled person. But he was a very flawed man, as we all are. But for me, it all begins with the scribe (the playwright Nicholas Wright).

“My interest is to see Robeson through Nicholas’ writing at a very specific time in his life. A lot happens to him from the start until we catch up with him again in 1956.

“He has never backed down on his principles, but it was at a great cost to his own career.

“He was fighting for the common man and woman, he was fighting for labour unions, he was fighting for Negroes as they were then called, African Americans now.

“And he was fighting for minorities around the world… but at great cost to himself. There was a period of his life where he was labelled a communist and his passport was revoked for eight years.”

Tory’s films include Those Who Wish Me Dead, Wander Darkly, Harriet, Dragged Across Concrete, Man Down, Bessie, American Heist, Olympus Has Fallen, Steel Magnolias (NAACP Image Award nomination), The Sapphires, The Kill Hole, The Chameleon, A Perfect Getaway, Miracle at St Anna, Stop-Loss, Next, Dirty, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Little Athens, Against the Ropes, Paparazzi, Malibu’s Most Wanted, Phone Booth, Big Shot, Invincible and Tigerland.

8 Hotels runs in the Minerva from August 1-24. Tickets from the CFT.

8 Hotels offers fascinating evening in Chichester's Minerva Theatre

Summer holiday fun