SOMERVILLE, NJ - Undeniably the most famous person to have lived in the borough, Paul Robeson had an extraordinary life growing up in his father's church, on the high school football field and on the stage at what is now the Somerville Middle School.
Those talents would lead him to accolades as an All-American football player at Rutgers University and later in life, plaudits for his stirring roles on the Broadway stage.
Robeson, son of a former slave, was one of the most well-known African-Americans of the 20th century. A graduate of Somerville High School - Class of 1915 - he was a social activist, singer, scholar, actor, athlete, intellectual, lawyer, linguist, humanist, and advocate for international peace.
His deep voice is forever connected with his signature song, "Ol' Man River," from the film classic, "Showboat."
Montclair actor Marvin Jefferson, a former theater professor at Bloomfield College, will return to Somerville on Robeson’s birthday, April 9, as guest of the Somerville Educational Foundation to present “Paul Robeson – A Living History" from 7-9 p.m. at Somerville Middle School, 51 West Cliff St.
Jefferson will also perform for the students from 1-2:30 p.m., which will include a Question-and-Answer session in the school’s auditorium, sitting, pacing and standing behind a lectern on the same stage where a young Robeson performed at the turn of the 20th century.
Though he has portrayed Robeson on stage dozens of times since 1998 and at the Somerville Library two years ago, Jefferson confessed to being slightly overwhelmed by the upcoming performance in the town where Robeson grew up.
Jefferson will be in character as Robeson, performing at the school he attended, on the stage where he performed, across the street from the church where his father was a preacher and on the date of his birth – April 9, 1898.
“I’m going to tell his story as I always do, as much as I can,” Jefferson said. “But, I’m sure this time it will be more special and on another level, a very spiritual journey.
“Arguably, he was the most talented person this county produced,” Jefferson said in his deep baritone voice. “Not only did he do these things, he excelled at all of them, which is incredibly intimidating for me.
“There will never be another Paul Robeson,” he added.
“It’s virtually impossible to touch upon all of the things he does; he spoke 26 different languages and he sang in many of those,” Jefferson said.
As he does normally on the day of a Robeson performance, Jefferson said he will ride the train from Montclair to Newark and switch trains for Somerville on the Raritan Valley Line, all the while wearing earphones and listening to Robeson’s music, and occasionally reading any number of books about Robeson.
“I always listen to Paul’s music and do my reading about Paul’s life,” Jefferson said.
“Of all the gifts he had, singing was what was closest to him,” Jefferson added.
The actor’s performance will include “Ol’ Man River,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and other songs associated with Robeson including “Joe Hill” and “This Little Light O’ Mine.”
“You can’t do Robeson without singing something,” Jefferson said. “I do not claim to be anywhere near him but it’s important you do something; that's a big part of who he was.”
Somerville Board of Education member Dan Puntillo proposed to the board and school officials to have Jefferson perform his one-man historical retrospective at the Middle School, which had been Somerville High School when Robeson's family moved to Somerville from Westfield where his father had been a minister; prior to that, his father was minister at a church in Princeton for 21 years..
“His picture hangs in the hallway at the school and I think most of the kids know about his days playing football and being an actor,” Puntillo said.
“But I want to have our kids know all about his legacy; that was my goal,” he added. “Our kids need to have a feel for what’s taken place in Somerville and this is just one way to do it. His act talks about motivation, obstacles, integrity, character - Robeson faced a lot of obstacles,” Puntillo said.
The evening performance is free and open to the public. Reservations are requested at https://www.smore.com/dkrjt or by calling 908-285-8217.