By FREDI WASHINGTON PV's Theatrical Editor June 1, 1946 p. 22
Open Letter to Paul Robeson
DEAR PAUL: Though you have been out of town almost constantly during the theatre season which is just about at an end, I know you have been kept apprised of what has been happening along Broadway and what particularly has been happening with plays having as their theme questions which vitally concern minorities. Though I have not had the opportunity to discuss with you the far-reaching effects of the bad notices given these plays on producers who have the courage of their convictions, on the theatre-going public on the Negro actor and last, but by no means least, on the actual struggle against discrimination of all kinds, I know we are in complete accord that under no circumstances can we allow such vital theatre to die from lack of leadership and support.
While we are putting up a fight to keep On Whitman Avenue at the Cort theatre, we cannot become so engrossed with the present that we fail to plan for the future. It is the future of one particular production with which I am now concerned and one which I know you too are concerned.
I have just finished reading Dorothy Heyward's script, Set My People Free, in which she has taken the great historical slave character, Denmark Vesey, and woven a most fascinating and moving story of the struggle of slaves to gain their freedom in Charleston, S. C. The Thing which stuck me so forcibly about the play is that in 1810, relatively the same underlying motives existed for keeping the Negro down as exist today. Dorothy, doing some of the best and most important theatre writing of her career, has brought her characters to life, giving them all the strength and frailties of human nature. The play, covering a span of 12 years, draws a vivid picture of hate, love, suspense and excitement--all drawn against a background of the complexities of the slave era.
The author has written with clear accuracy about a period in our history which is little known to the American public. Our history books have not bothered to tell us about the near overthrow of the slave masters by the slaves, led by Denmark Vesey in the state from which our Secretary of State, James Byrnes, hails. Nor have they bothered to tell us that, despite the lack of an educational system, there were slaves with high intellect and education, informal though it might have been.
Perhaps by this time you've gathered why I've directed an open letter to you. Well you're not wrong. There is but one person who has the stature as an actor to play this great historical role of Denmark Vesey, and that person is you. It is you, Paul, because you are known far and wide as not an actor alone, but as a champion of better racial relations through education--as one who is vitally interest in the rights of all minorities where here or abroad, and for the reason that your name in the marque of a theatre means customers.
It is not for that reason alone that Set My People Free is an important document, which all Americans should know about, that I, as many others who have read the script, implore you to lend your time and talents to it; but because it is an exciting drama. This is the kind of theatre vehicle that should by all means be produced, getting the best possible casting, direction and production.
You might not point to other actors of ability who could play the role. I have no doubt that that is so, though I don't know who they could be. But there is one thing you cannot deny, and that is there is no actor with your diversified ability who has consistently fought for and demanded an end to jimcro in the theatre as well as outside the theatre.
The fact that you were the first Negro to play the title role in Othello opposite a white "Desdemona" in the American commercial theatre to packed audiences throughout the country, proves that the success of plays dealing with Negro characters and life, good though they be in their own right, must not only have good and competent actors, they must have in addition a name which has tremendous box office value.
Your name, Paul, carries that box office value. And that value carries with it a tremendous responsibility to the cause for which you have given unstintingly of your time, energy, abilities and finances. This is not the time nor the place to slacken the intense drive to bring to theatre goers better threatre, educational theatre, a more stimulating theatre, yes, and an artistic theatre which clasps hands with reality.
Set My People Free has all of these things and more. It is a play which should and must reach Broadway next season. To play the role of Denmark Vesey, is but part of the work you have cut out for yourself. Using what influence I have to get you to play the role is part of the work I've cut out for myself.
The plea I'm making to you, Paul, is being made pretty much in the dark. I don't know what your fall commitments are but somehow I'm pig-headed enough to believe that whatever they may be, they are hardly as important to the rounded picture we are striving for, as a production of Set My People Free with you as its star. I dare say that lending yourself to this play is of far more importance today than it would have been last year. This is the time when we, the people, must press for the kind of freedom to which all human beings are entitled, whether it be in the coal mine, railroad, factory, farm, or theatre, for the forces which would ruin our chances of freeing ourselves from the bonds of prejudices are hard at work.
A very large part of our work is to break down the wall of ignorance about the Negro through the medium of good theatre. It is our opportunity to bring to Negro and white America, the vital part Negroes have played in American history. The theatre is the best format yet to be used for educational purposes. A good illustration of this is the effect On Whitman Avenue has had on all who have seen it. It is impossible to see this play and forget what has taken place on the stage. Most people with whom I've talked after seeing Whitman Avenue, are so aroused that they immediately want to help in their way to right some of the wrongs they have seen dramatized.
This kind of theatre has a definite place in our not so right American scene. It is up to people, who are aware that so long as the white population is ignorant about the Negro and the Negro about the white, to use every method at their command to educate both sides so that a bill like FEPC is understood and respected.
A great deal of the responsibility for pushing such a program rests on your shoulders. It's a big order, but then, you've shown time and time again that your shoulders are broad, your heart is stout and your spirit indomitable. You have proven yourself a leader in the full sense of the word; you have proven yourself to be the kind of representative of which Negro American can be justly proud. But most of all in your chosen field, the theatrical profession, yours has been the truly great voice of our time with the same message of freedom that has come rumbling down through the ages from the time of Moses.
Paul, there is no other voice, in this--our time, that can have the far reaching effect of yours, saying: SET MY PEOPLE FREE. As ever [?]