Keith David, accompanied here by Byron J. Smith, stars in the Ebony Repertory Theatre production, Paul Robeson

(Pictured) Keith David forefront, accompanied by pianist/musical director Byron J. Smith at piano, stars in the Ebony Repertory Theatre production, Paul Robeson

Keith David is clearly one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood. So why is it that upon seeing his picture you may find yourself saying, “That’s his name?”

If this is you, you wouldn’t be alone. Though he has hordes of fans around the world, many people I spoke with – this writer included – had no idea that was his name. And when I joined his likeness with his name my response was, “Wow! I love this actor. I didn’t know that was his name.”

David, born Keith David Williams, is a two-time Emmy Award Winner, who has been doing his thing around Hollywood for a l-o-n-g time. He has covered the sphere of entertainment doing voice-overs, films, television series, and cabaret-style performances…and Broadway theatre, yep, he’s done that too…Twice.

Now, he steps onstage in the title role for the Paul Hayes Dean production, Paul Robeson – one of the most acclaimed and enigmatic figures of  the 20th century, for a limited engagement run of three additional performances (The original run was to start March 12, but was postponed for one week due to an accident he suffered a few days before the show was set to open).

Here he speaks with EURweb contributing writer and editor of sister-site, EURThisNThat, DeBorah B. Pryor, about his longtime desire to play the role and the challenges in doing so; the public demands of being a celebrity in Hollywood and fan expectations, and provides his take on the question many African American celebrities seem to cringe at when asked: How has being black in Hollywood impacted your career?

Phillip Hayes Dean’s play chronicles the life of Paul Robeson,  the 20th century icon who crossed over in the field of  athletics, entertainment (actor, singer,) and political activism. In the play we see Robeson, a university scholar, from his childhood in New Jersey to his adult life around the world. We witness the All-American athlete and lawyer with Columbia Law School credentials face the racism that was more prevalent in society during his time (because it was boldly in your face and not the undercurrent it shows itself as now) in the early part of the twentieth century. We see him as he strives to rise above it, triumphs in that struggle, and subsequently becomes a modern day hero.

As I sat in the audience at the Ebony Repertory Theatre and watched Keith David mesmerize what was, on this day, a full house, in the role, I thought to myself, “He’s the perfect actor to play this figure.” He has the voice (the tonality, timbre actually equals Robeson’s), the commanding presence influenced by his height (David stands 6’2″ and Robeson stood 6’3″), and his ease in appropriately conveying both Robeson’s indignation and sophistication simultaneously. This is especially felt as the play opens, with only a bust of Paul Robeson’s head on a stand, spotlighted, addressing the audience in a voice-over on why he “Could not be here tonight.”

You didn’t have to know the history or back-story behind his absence on that day to know there was one. The eloquent, yet reserved  demeanor of David’s performance in that voice-over told us right away that this was no “I couldn’t be here because of other obligations” slight. It went much deeper.

On stage with David for the entire performance is pianist Byron J. Smith, whose accompaniment more than aptly sets the mood of the scenes as well as the great musical interludes where we get to hear several of the Robeson songs we have become familiar with (think Ol’ Man River). Smith is an accomplished professional who works as a musical director, studio musician, arranger and producer. He has worked with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilo, and Bebe Winans.

In speaking with Keith David, I found him to be very gracious; yet not one of those outgoing, warm and fuzzy-type people. Let’s just put it like this: I’d have a hard time envisioning him letting loose and dancing to Pharrell’s ‘Happy’.

But be that as it may, it was obvious he realizes the huge shoes he steps into in becoming Paul Robeson. Especially since the play was on Broadway for the first time in 1978, with the iconic James Earl Jones in the title role.

Because this is theatre, where you get “one shot” so to speak versus TV and film, where you have “takes” I wondered if someone of his caliber still gets some form of stage fright.

DBP: You’ve been performing for decades now, but this is live theatre. The audience is right there. And its a one-man show basically. Do you still get stage fright?

KD: I am choosing to channel that energy into excitement. Of course, it’s a lot to do and very little time to do it so, I’m hoping to be able to be there and be my best at that time.

DBP: Playing such an iconic character can be a bit intimidating, after all, Paul Robeson wore big shoes. Can you talk about the challenges present in striving to fill those shoes?

KD: When I saw Paul Robeson, I was just about to do ‘Othello’ at Julliard, and I remember the director saying on the first day at table read that we have to ‘meet the height of these characters and not bring these characters down to our little selves.’ That’s the biggest challenge for me. ..Its almost trite to say these are ‘big shoes to fill’. I have a great admiration and respect for this man. He’s been one of my heroes for a long time…Its really my desire to pay the homage that he is due and to honor him in the way that I feel he should be honored.

DBP: Director Paul Hayes Dean said that you actually remind him of Paul Robeson in some ways; I get the impression he is speaking of the man’s character. Why do you think he said that?

KD: Well, of course you would have to ask him to elaborate on that but, one of the things I admire about Paul [Robeson] is that he never forgot his roots, or where he came from. Not unlike Paul, I have very strong southern roots…I remember the women in my family who worked as domestics. I remember the working class neighborhood that I’m from, and those people mean a lot to me.

Keith says that Robeson always managed to “find the balance because he walked with kings and sat with dignitaries.” The actor recalls a line in the poem, If, by renowned English poet, Rudyard Kipling, that speaks on this point.

If you could walk with kings and never lose the common touch…

“It’s a wonderfully exciting project. Its not everyday that I get to play someone like Paul Robeson. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.”--Keith David on playing Paul Robeson

“It’s a wonderfully exciting project. Its not everyday that I get to play someone like Paul Robeson. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.”–Keith David on playing ‘Paul Robeson’

Paul Robeson best photo

Paul Robeson: April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976

Below we see the actor in a scene from “Paul Robeson.” Though I get that the use of the chairs denote the different atmospheres or locations or environment Robeson was in at any given time, I am not sure the interesting use or overuse of them was Phillip Hayes Dean’s direction or Keith Young‘s choreography, but after a time it did become distracting.

la-et-paul-robesonOur interview shifts now, as we segue off talking about the play and into real life topics, such as fans knowing boundaries and the need for etiquette when approaching celebrities.  I find Keith to be passionate, thoughtful, and insightful in these areas as well.

“I think one of the drawbacks of computers and social media is that people in general – I’m making a big general statement – forget how to really make human contact. So when you see somebody who you don’t know, and you know you don’t know, but you’d like to say something to them, there’s a kind of protocol, say ‘Hello,’ you don’t get overly familiar. You don’t touch people. I think people forget that today.”

While the statement speaks for itself, I’d like to add that I know exactly what David means. While some celebrities may welcome hugs and hi-fives and such, it is unfair to expect someone you don’t personally know to meet you “were you are.” To hug you because you are feeling a certain way, or even to be accountable for something they may or may not have been involved with.

Keith emphasizes that he loves when people come up to him to say ‘hello’ or that they ‘love his work’ – but says he has also had folks come to him “with their finger in my face saying, ‘who are you?’ ‘You are somebody, right?’”

KD: It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The actor recalls speaking with the wife of another celebrity who wanted to write a book about the proper etiquette in How to Say Hello to A Celebrity. He brings up the point that its not just celebrities, but local politicians too.

KD: You have no right to walk to, express a beef that you might have with the system or something they might be in charge of. You know, to walk up to somebody and just start venting. It’s inappropriate.

Take heed people. This is coming directly from someone who knows what it feels like…And I’d like to take this opportunity to “out myself” and apologize to Randy Jackson of The Jackson’s for walking up to him while he was in line at Starbucks recently, and putting the phone up in front of his face so he could see that I was talking to his publicist at the time. Wrong!

Of course, he and his brothers were set to meet with me for an interview in 5 minutes…but still, let the man get his coffee in peace. You don’t know him like that!

As the interview winds down, and by now we have become more comfortable with each other, I approach the race question.

DBP: Paul Robeson certainly dealt with a lot of it in his time, and African Americans are still dealing with it today. How has race in the business of Hollywood affected you?

KD: The bottom line is, America is still a capitalistic society, and as long as we’re a capitalistic society where production over a man’s worth is still the highlight, it’s going to be contingent upon who’s got the dough. In other cultures, where you don’t have to deal with white and black, the guy who has the money makes the decisions.

KD: As far as we as a black people here in America, when we start being more supportive of ourselves and our projects and telling stories ourselves, then the paradigm will shift a bit more so that there are more divergent stories about us.

KD: Part of the biggest challenge that we have is you do get a little bit of money and you still want to tell different versions of the story that you’ve complained that the white man has been telling the whole time. I mean, we are a diverse people. How many of us write about and produce that diversity. Many times its far more easy to buy into the commercial aspect of it and to retell that same old story than challenging that and telling a new story.

Before we concluded the interview, I had asked a few fans on Facebook what questions they wanted me to ask Mr. David. In one Facebook post, Trina Robinson-Kemie, says she heard that the actor speaks as many as 5 different languages and wonders how he learned to do this with such a busy schedule.

Keith says that although he doesn’t actually speak 5 different languages, he is able to sing in several languages, and does so when he appears in his cabaret performances.

David is also revered for his role as Spawn in Todd McFarland’s animated television series of the same name. Social media poster, Dwayne Case, loves Keith’s Spawn character and asks about the process he uses to become the character.

KD: First of all, it was one of my favorite projects. I had a wonderful time. To me when its…well written, its certainly easier to do. Spawn was well written. One of the things that I loved about that character, if you understand Spawn’s beginnings, when he was first in that terrible fire and that’s when he made his sort of pact with the devil, to me he’s like “Darth Vadar” making his way back to The Force. Although he had his obligations to fulfill with the pact that he made, to stay alive, he always wound up doing something that was more good than just evil.”

Keith says he doesn’t ever know if you ever destroy someone who doesn’t need destroying or who didn’t bring that on themselves, and refers to another line, this time from Shakespeare’s King Richard III, where Queen Elizabeth asks,

“Shall I be tempted by the devil thus?” And Richard III answers, “Yes, if the devil tempt you to do good.”

KD: There’s always a balance to be struck. And Spawn was always in that interim, ‘What do I do…What’s best to do.’ And more often than not he would do the next rightest thing…[as opposed to] just being destructive in evil for evil’s sake.

David speaks to the choice we have each day to ‘recreate ourselves’ and says this was something else he liked about the Spawn character.

Be sure to catch Keith David in his three added performances as PAUL ROBESON beginning this Friday, April 18.

PAUL ROBESON runs at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center,  4718 West Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90016 beginning Friday, April 18 at 8:00 p.m. With performances on Saturday, April 19 at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday, April 20 at 7:00 p.m; Friday, April 25 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, April 26 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 27 at 3:00 p.m. (final performance).  

Tickets range from $30.00 – $60.00. Single tickets are available online at ebonyrep.org or by phone at 323-964-9766. Groups of 10 or more are available via email at [email protected] or 323-964-9766.

Enjoy PAUL ROBESON as he sings Ol’ Man River in a scene from the 1936 film Show Boat in the clip below.


DeBorah B. Pryor is a Los Angeles based writer and entrepreneur. She has taught communications classes at UCLA Extension on several occasions; is an independent associate with LegalShield, and is the author of the workshop Public Speaking for the Private Person, which is on CD. Reach out to her at [email protected]

DeBorah solo, Jan 2014