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ENGLEWOOD — Two native sons of Englewood will present an “epic” jazz poetry opera this weekend that chronicles the life of a 20th-century icon.

“Paul Robeson: Man of the People” opens 6 p.m. Friday at Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd St. The show premiered May 31 at The Cabaret in Indianapolis.

The 90-minute production will blend poetry, an original jazz- and blues-infused score, narration, video animation and live visual art to recount Robeson’s life from his birth in New Jersey to his time as a musician, actor, athlete and activist.

Admission is free, and reservations aren’t required.

The jazz poetry opera is the most recent collaboration between Englewood natives and longtime friends Ernest Dawkins and Lasana D. Kazembe.

Kazembe, an award-winning poet and associate professor at Indiana University Indianapolis, co-created the production with Dawkins, a world-renowned saxophonist, composer, music educator and founder of the Englewood Jazz Festival.

Ernest Dawkins (left) and Lasana D. Jazembe (right) co-created “Paul Robeson: Man of the People.” Credit: Provided.

“Paul Robeson: Man of the People” is broken into six movements, each piece capturing significant moments in Robeson's life.

As musicians play and poets speak, photos and video footage from interviews, plays and films with Robeson will project silently in the background, “commingling to create an operatic effect,” Kazembe said.

“With this production, we had to create art that reflected the excellence of Paul Robeson,” Kazembe said. “We had to do it in a way that he would be pleased with, because he is the standard.”

Kazembe received the Indiana University Presidential Arts & Humanities Fellowship three years ago, he said. The honor awards $50,000 to a scholar to birth a creative idea that reflects the arts and humanities. Kazembe has also been the artist-in-residence at The Cabaret, a performing arts venue in Indianapolis, for the past two years.

Kazembe has created 12 productions since receiving the fellowship, including “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre: The Travelin’ Genius of Richard Wright.” The blues poetry opera aired on PBS in 2021.

Kazembe began conceptualizing what would become “Man of the People” when he received the fellowship, he said. Robeson is “the tallest tree in our forest” and “the most important person of the 20th century,” Kazembe said.

Kazembe isn't a musician, but he is “a student of jazz and cinematic music,” he said. A “huge film buff,” he often listens to movies’ scores and soundtracks.

When a person creeps up a darkened stairwell in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, he studies how one would score trepidation, Kazembe said. He listens to the sounds of love and yearning.

“When I began to think about Mr. Robeson, I put these concepts together and lined them up in my mind based on the story I wanted to tell about his artistic evolution and his maturation into this global icon for freedom,” Kazembe said.

“Paul Robeson: Man of the People” premiered in Indianapolis on May 31. The jazz opera poetry will make its local debut at Hamilton Park Friday. Credit: Provided.

Kazembe wanted to create a show that would encapsulate the sound of Robeson’s boyhood in the “bucolic suburbs of New Jersey” and manhood in the “rhythmic intensity of New York City,” he said.

As Kazembe went about his day, he began hearing the oboes and percussion that would score Robeson’s time in his father's church and the “mighty baritone of anti-imperialism” as Robeson’s activism fell under the “government's white gaze,” he said. He started recording himself humming the score on his phone. Soon, he had 55 concepts for a potential jazz opera show, Kazembe said.

That’s when he gave Dawkins a call.

Kazembe met Dawkins in the early '90s at the now-closed Velvet Lounge jazz club.

In those days, Kazembe assembled musicians to travel around the country and perform live poetry and music with his group, Vibe n' Verse. Dawkins took to the road, performing in places like Springfield and Tennessee with Kazembe’s group. More than 25 years later, their friendship persists, Kazembe said.

Kazembe shared his hum-filled folder with Dawkins, and they met over Zoom to go over the tracks, Kazembe said.

“I played the songs for him and he listened to them, and he was like, ‘Ay, brother, do me a favor. Leave the music to me,’” Kazembe said.

Dawkins gathered musicians to transform Kazembe’s thoughts into actualized sounds. “Paul Robeson: Man of the People” features trumpets, pianos, flutes, violins, cellos, saxophones and more to “epically reflect Robeson’s activism and life as a global icon for freedom and integrity, ” Kazembe said.

Ernest Dawkins performs at the Englewood Jazz Festival. Credit: Englewood Jazz Festival/Facebook

Performing the jazz poetry opera in Englewood is “like coming home,” Kazembe said. He attended Englewood’s Paul Robeson High School as a teen.

“I’m excited for people to hear the music and see the image,” Kazembe said. “I’m also excited to introduce to some and remind others of who this brother was and why he is more important than ever in our age of acquisitiveness.”

Robeson was a figure who recognized at an early age that art is “a revolutionary tool,” Kazembe said. Hopefully, Friday’s show sparks an inquisitive flame in its viewers, Kazembe said.

“I hope this production encourages people to understand that there is a cultural continuity that we can apprehend and inhabit,” Kazembe said. “I’m hoping it will encourage people to understand Paul Robeson is an exemplar of how we can use our art to tell our story, educate and bring people together.”


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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Ecoglobalsociety, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis