Professor Maurice Henderson’s one-man play evokes thoughts on the intersection of race and politics.
Although Black History Month has ended, the Paul Robeson House museum cultural center showcased a retrospective of African Americans’ presence in politics through the one-man play, “OBAMA: Straight No Chaser,” on March 18.
Acting as President Barack Obama, Pan-African Studies Professor Maurice Henderson provided an in-depth analysis of the trials and tribulations that the president has survived as the first black president in United States history.
Local residents and activists gathered in the quaint living room of the Paul Robeson House to learn about Obama’s background and discuss race in the U.S.
“When in American history has a president been so degraded?” Henderson said. “How much have things really changed?”
Because Paul Robeson’s legendary singing and acting career suffered under the prejudice of McCarthyism in the 1950s, Henderson said he chose the former residence of the civil rights activist as the play’s location to emphasize the history of discrimination toward black political figures.
“I cross the fourth wall of show business and interact with the audience,” Henderson said. “This is not a traditional walk through history. I keep the play short so people get the message and feel motivated to get out there to make an impact.”
Henderson incorporated a humorous undertone by utilizing a black magazine catalogue that sells Obama-related merchandise, such as contact lenses and a gold tooth, to illustrate the public’s disarray of priorities.
“People cash in on Obama’s name, yet none of the proceeds go to changing the conditions of blacks in America,” Henderson said.
Encouraging voters to not only participate but to become aware of the campaign issues, Henderson developed this “workshop in progress,” as a result of the Institute of the Black World Conference in New Orleans a couple years ago.
“I actually met Obama in Chicago. We were seated in the congregation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fiery speeches,” Henderson said. “Despite the media backlash, Wright retained profound leaders with his energy and spirit.”
Henderson claimed the play’s standing room-only attendance was due to the efforts of Pan-African Studies and Community Education Program faculty and students extending invitations to family and friends.
A card-carrying member of Soka Gakkai International-USA, Vicki Sheppard heard about the play from her Buddhist group.
“The title caught my attention. The play makes you think in a different direction than you have been thinking,” Sheppard said. “While we need to stand up for our race, at the same time, you see another side of dealing with prejudice. You see the power of keeping your composure.”
“If you know history, you are able to handle the hostility professionally,” she added. “As long as Obama avoids the usual traps and maintains his emotions, he can pave the way for future black politicians.”
Micki Free said he was “dragged” to the play for a unique date night.
“My girlfriend asked me to come,” Free said. “I actually found the evening to be wonderfully informative. However, Henderson should dry clean his suit next time. First impressions are everything.”
Henderson has performed similar one-man productions of historical black figures such as Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, in this play, Henderson revealed his candid thoughts regarding Obama’s presidency.
“I would rate Obama a seven out of 10,” Henderson said. “There are things that he cannot do, or he would be killed. He must appease the pseudo-intellectuals of American heritage.”
Staying well after the play was finished, Steven Satell seemed mesmerized by the black and white images of Robeson adorning the walls.
“I have been following Obama’s three-year reign, so this was a must-see event,” Satell said. “His reign has been cyclical. The public originally greeted him with unbridled enthusiasm, then worldwide curiosity, and now he is an isolated president. I thought the play was great, humorous and asked more questions than gave answers.”
Henderson will continue to maintain his busy schedule by returning to the Paul Robeson House on April 8. The event is free, but reservations are recommended due to limited seating.
“Writers and authors from Temple’s [Pan-African Studies and Community Education Program,] along with other distinguished Temple faculty and alumni, will be celebrating old-school arts and politics,” Henderson said.
As the 2012 Election quickly approaches, and potential Republican candidates such as Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump emerge, Henderson said he is keeping Obama “in his prayers.”
John Corrigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.