Beaumier Center showcases historical U.P. industry through performance

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HISTORICAL HYMNS— Pictured Anthony Brown performing for the fall 2019 showcase on labor. This event is meant to observe the industries and issues the workers had when they first came to the U.P. The performance will be played at the virtual event running from April 9 to April 30.

Sophia Huhta

As part of its showcase on labor in the Upper Peninsula, the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center will host an online concert beginning Friday, on the life of Paul Robeson, a famous African American baritone singer from the 1930s. The concert will be available for viewing for several weeks.

The center’s gallery showcase, “Conflict and Resolve: Labor in the U.P.”, looks at the first industries that came up in the U.P. and the issues with security, wages and workers’ rights that then developed into the union movement and labor organizations forming. It follows the history through the present day with service unions across the Upper Peninsula, Daniel Truckey, director and curator for the center, said. 

“We normally would have brought him here to do the performance,” Truckey said. “But due to COVID-19, we have to do it virtually.”

Robeson was a singer and social activist who came to the U.P. in 1946 to perform at Ishpeming High School’s auditorium. When he heard there was an iron mining strike going on in Marquette County, he went out to the picket line in Negaunee and gave a speech to the strikers. He sang for them, gave a pep talk and encouraged them in their struggle to get better wages from the company. The center features the story as a part of the strike in the exhibition, Truckey said.

“We thought [the concert] would be a nice tie in with the exhibit,” Truckey said.

Before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, there was Robeson. The show’s broader mission is to challenge people to engage with the issues of the 21st century. There is social and racial injustice in the world still today, said Anthony Brown, who performed in the show as Robeson.

“It really speaks to the challenges that we have today and it challenges all of us to engage each other to play a part and help move a civilization forward,” Brown said.

Robeson was also an attorney, a professional athlete and a scholar. He was global in his outspokenness against injustice of all kinds all around the world, Brown said.

“It’s a story about his life, which is really an exceptional life that I think everyone should know about,” Brown said.

The 80-minute performance was filmed live in the fall of 2019. Narrating the show is Ann Gross and the pianist is Justin Badgerow. The performance is about Robeson’s life and his accomplishments, as well as his struggles. It shows his experience in school, college and his life as an attorney. He was blacklisted for eight years in the 1950s and couldn’t sing because he was speaking out against injustice. Joseph McCarthy, a prominent senator who helped create the Red Scare of that era, spoke out against Robeson and turned the country against him. The show goes into detail about all these aspects of his life.

“It’s both documentary and live concert experience,” Brown said. “There’s music and there’s story, and they are intertwined, making it an experience that is captivating.”

Brown sings many of Robeson’s songs, such as “Old Man River” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Robeson spoke 22 languages fluently, so Brown also sings a song in Russian and a song in German. Some songs will be spiritual songs, some will be Broadway, and there are folk songs included, too. Robeson sang in many different genres. Brown’s favorite song to sing in the show is “Old Man River.”

“[Robeson] took the liberty to change the lyrics at the end of it. It is quite powerful, actually, with the change of lyrics,” Brown said.

Robeson campaigned for human rights and peace. In the performance, Brown celebrates Robeson’s timeless arrangements, said Emma Drever, NMU senior studying English and Spanish, who is the gallery assistant and receptionist at the center. Drever also assisted in event promotion.

“It is so important to frame activists in a positive light and recognize their contributions to society,” Drever said. “I am excited for the opportunity to reflect on Robeson.”

The exhibit is open to the public, but only six people are allowed in the exhibit at a time. 

The concert will run from April 9 to May 30. Tickets for the general public are $5. NMU students tickets are free. Tickets can be purchased at https://nmu.universitytickets.com/