Mabel Robinson as Billie in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem
Mabel Robinson. Her artistic skill has made possible opportunities to perform across the genres of dance, theater, film, and television as an actress, director, choreographer, and instructor. She has performed professionally with distinguished companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Juilliard Dance Theatre, and the Hava Kohav Dancers. Ben Vereen, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Carol Burnett, among other actors and personalities, have shared the stage with her. You may remember, however, her intense interpretative dance scene in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), directed by the late actor/director Ossie Davis.
Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography in Cotton Comes To Harlem guides the audience to myriad locales throughout the city; one place is Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. Here, in this hallowed space of African American entertainment, Ms. Robinson (Billie), costumed in full slave regalia, advances the story with burlesque panache to George Tipson’s song Cotton Comes to Harlem. Her dance on top of the bale of cotton that came to Harlem not only entertains, the performance, also, informs audiences of the African American journey from the southern cotton fields to the concrete jungle of the northern urban city.
Ms. Robinson has enjoyed a rich and varied career both on and off screen. It is no surprise. My interview with her brings to relief an artist who respects and honors her craft. This is a story about her sheer love for her talents and abilities, and how this love requires not only practice, focus, and discipline, but also it needs patience, and the right mentors and teachers to fertilize the ground for its growth. Correspondingly, Ms. Robinson makes known the choices an artist has to make when life intervenes and changes the course of direction.
TDR: How did you nurture your desire for the performing arts?
MR: My nurture of the arts began when I was an infant—or so I have been told. I loved to dance, according to my grandmother. She told me when she turned on the radio, I would pull up on the crib and jump for hours. She said that’s how she could get her laundry done!
TDR: So, this nurture came from within your home.
MR: Yes! My mom was a single parent. Mom went to New York to get a better job. She left us with grandmother in Savannah, Georgia where I was born. When she found a job, she came back for my sister and me. Whatever I did, I had to be the best. My mother said I had to be.
TDR: You talk of your mother with pride …
MR: My mom was a very determined and focused person—always. She was a seamstress who tailored men’s clothes; she made the muslin cloth patterns for clothes. Later she went to work at this company and became their bookkeeper; she ended up becoming an accountant. She didn’t finish high school until I finished college, but the way she attacked things–the way she finished things–it made people admire her ability to be such a perfectionist without having the book learning. Then she enrolled in college courses. In essence, my mother guided me to look and move beyond the norm.
TDR: Were there other men and/or women who encouraged your love for the arts?MR: Vereda Pearson, a little short black woman who played the piano, was a teacher in the public schools in New York who taught after school in the community center. Well, mom and Ms. Pearson became really good friends. She taught her students to articulate, to learn opera … she worked with [vaudeville actor and the first Black comedian to ever appear in the cinema] Bert Williams, so she had an awful lot to give to us. She was theater for me in a sense.
When you’re 11 and 12 years old you’re trying to get into your own, and she did not allow us let up. She said “there will be no insecurities here!” Her guidance helped me a great deal to be nurtured as far as the arts was concerned.
TDR: From the crib to the community center, the arts seemingly followed you. Discuss your high school years.
MR: I entered the High School of Performing Arts. When I enrolled I hadn’t had much technical training. The one thing I did have, though, was the love for dance. I remember I was a week late getting to school because our car broke down. At registration, all of the modern dance classes were filled so I had to go to the ballet classes. Blacks were discouraged from ballet, so luckily I only had to do half year of ballet before I became a double major. This meant having equal classes in ballet and modern techniques. The modern technique allowed me more freedom of movement. Ballet is a highly disciplined genre, and the learning of it, as far as freedom of movement … it’s restricting. The dancer, then, has to have the discipline to get her body to do what she wants it to do.
The most important things any person interested in the arts must do is have a respect for the discipline, learn to be professional, and learn to work for quality. On the whole, the arts take discipline but the artist has to make it look like magic.
TDR: You mention that blacks were discouraged from ballet. Growing up I remember hearing the reason was the African American body could not express the kinds of movements ballet required. Why the discouragement?
MR: The ballet establishment believed the African American body could not accommodate the discipline of ballet because we were built with a curvature, had large buttocks, and flat feet–of course you can build up the feet up to stand on point.
TDR: Yet, in spite of that belief, there are African American ballet dancers …
MR: Janet Collins was the first notable African American ballet dancer in America. Later, [African American dancer and choreographer] Arthur Mitchell challenged these notions about the Black body and ballet. He established The Dance Theater of Harlem, and it is all ballet, even children doing ballet. Louis Johnson, who was the person that I worked with a lot, came [from Statesville, North Carolina] to D.C. He later went to dance with the New York City School of American Ballet and performed with the New York City Ballet. Now, Misty Copeland is a shining example that deletes the statement about Black dancers and ballet.
TDR: You are a graduate of the High School for Performing Arts and Juilliard School of Music. That you attended these schools leads me to believe that you were/are a very focused and talented individual who knew exactly what she wanted to do.
MR: The arts always have been a saving grace for me. Dancing is not only about steps or being musical or having a high kick. No. I found that I must be able to tell stories or to “talk” through my movements. When you first work with individuals, I observed they don’t necessarily embrace that approach, so I searched for those who allowed me to do that.
TDR: Why the dance?
MR: Dancing was something I had to hold on to; it made me feel good; it made people like me. Those feelings and emotions are important to me.
TDR: You have performed on Broadway and in film and television. How important do you believe education is when it comes to performing? Is it necessary? Why?
MR: The most important things any person interested in the arts must do is have a respect for the discipline, learn to be professional, and learn to work for quality. On the whole, the arts take discipline but the artist has to make it look like magic. So, performance, in the eye of the public, is magical. As for the formal degree, it is up to the individual. People do not think about the hard knocks; they only think of the end result. But you asked about education. I think education is important. It establishes a “fit-in” … how you fit … education continues … It’s not only book education, it is also social–how you deal with people and their energies. Hopefully you are studying what it is that you want to do in the future …
The arts always have been a saving grace for me. Dancing is not only about steps or being musical or having a high kick. No. I found that I must be able to tell stories or to “talk” through my movements.
TDR: When cast in a show, how do you prepare for your character?
MR: Characters, I think, are extensions of yourself; however, certain things you may not have experienced in life can be projected through your character. When this is realized, the performer has to research and get the information. Then the information has to be interpreted by the performer to establish a frame for that character. If the role has been done or established, the performer still has to make it her own.
TDR: You are a dancer and a choreographer. In what ways do you prepare your instrument (the body) to be ready for a performance? (i.e., eating habits, exercise, etc.).
MR: I was very fortunate because of my eating habits; diet is very important. I have a temple and I have to keep it moving. Not only do I deal with nurturing or taking care of my body, I have to eat well. My body tells me what to have and what not to eat. The minute you abuse your body you will get hurt. You have to prepare your body because the body was not built to dance so to speak but you train the body to do those things … you have to warm it up; that’s why athletes, to continue to do what they do, have to warm up and stretch …
TDR: You participated in the era in film history called Blaxploitation, and the title caused a political backlash by those who filmmaker Melvin van Peebles sarcastically called “the black intelligentsia”. This backlash contributed to the nadir of the era. What are your thoughts on the title of that era and this backlash?
MR: People became embarrassed and/or hurt by that name. You know, I don’t know whether it was a backlash. It was an era that gave black artists an opportunity to work. During the period I was so happy that there was work for black artists. [The studio heads] had to determine what was going to sell–what was commercial. Because of [director] Ossie Davis’s high respect for theater as was his wife Ruby’s, all of that went into his film work. As a director [of Cotton Comes to Harlem], he demanded excellent artists. He demanded good producers who respected his artistic opinions. As with anything else, if you lose respect for the craft and you are just going for one goal—the money–then you have to deal with the consequences.
TDR: Do you feel that the the Blaxploitation era was a productive one in terms of the kinds of images, stories, fashion, and dialogue it produced during that time?
Mabel Robinson as Billie
MR: Blaxploitation gave us a transition from the intensity of the 1960s. For some it became their lifestyles; a lot of people didn’t know where they wanted to go so the images influenced them in myriad ways.
TDR: How did you come to be involved in Cotton Comes to Harlem? What was your reaction when you were cast in the movie?
MR: I felt wonderful because I knew Raymond St. Jacques. He suggested that I audition for the part.
TDR: The theater scene in Cotton Comes to Harlem is very poignant. There are so many historical registers that are performed: blackface, gospel, dance, the bale of cotton …
MR: That theater scene upheld the points of the civil rights movement; it kept a certain respect. It made us uphold a certain respect. It showcased the plight of black people through history even with the white man coming entering the stage in blackface — there were a lot of teaching moments in there, yes.
TDR: Your dance is what takes the audience through those historical registers. Discuss your dance choreography. How did you come up with the theme? What did you hope to accomplish during the routine?
MR: I should note that Ossie Davis hired me as an actress—not as a dancer because he did not know that I could dance. It was a collaboration as well as an understanding of all creative energies working on the film. Louis Johnson choreographed the scene after Ossie told him what he wanted. I offered to Louis to envision moving through our history within the dance; he said exactly right! We agreed on how we were going to approach the performance. It was only to be 30 seconds but those 30 seconds turned out to be 4 minutes.
TDR: How was it working with Ossie Davis?
MR: It was fantastic to work with a director in whom you can find all of the nuances necessary to bring a project to fruition. Ossie not only was an actor, he was a writer as well. He encouraged all actors to try new ways of interpreting characters. I think it was a connection that every one who worked on Cotton Comes to Harlem made. It was a really nice feeling. He had all of those creative energies to put into the film to encourage all actors to go that way or to try something else. I think the connection made by all people in Cotton Comes to Harlem was really a nice feeling.
TDK: The scene is over, and the director moves on to block other scenes in the film. What are your thoughts?
MR: Everyone said I did a good job so my performance affirmed something. I felt there was nothing more I could do for that character because it already was notated. Film is not like live theater. In live theater, you have a chance to revise and reinterpret your character every night of a performance.
TDR: What did you do after Cotton Comes to Harlem?
MR: I came back to Broadway and continued to dance. I did some assistant directing. Then, in 1972, I had a son so I did some touring but I did not travel out of the country as much. I felt my son needed structure and discipline. I worked in companies that were off-broadway so that I could keep my craft alive and, more important, continue in my discipline. I was fortunate because black theater was alive and booming then. I was very fortunate because I would swing in some of the shows I was cast in.
TDR: Define ‘Swing’ …
MR: To ‘swing’ means to learn more than one role. Those actors who could swing were treasures because not everyone can do that. It’s different from being an understudy whereby you learn one role only. So, for instance, in some shows, I would learn all of the female parts so if something happened, I could be in costume and go on stage and play that part.
TDR: Among other projects, you went on to work in Funny Lady with Barbra Streisand in 1975.
MR: I had finished [the musical revue] Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. I took over Hope Clarke’s part in that production, and toured with the show in Canada and San Francisco. Herbie Ross called me to do Funny Lady because I had worked with him in 1963 at the Spoleto Festival [Italy]. Herbie Ross remembered me.
TDR: What was your experience working with Barbra Streisand?
Ben Vereen (center) and Mabel Robinson (right)
MR: For me it was the most fun to dance and sing with both Streisand and Ben Vereen. The quality of the [Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie] routine was sort of Ragtime-ish, and it gave me a chance to do a variety of styles. We were kind of Ross’s skeleton crew which took the edge off and gave you a feeling of importance and leadership during the project.
TDR: You played a munchkin in The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in 1978—two very different movies from those produced during blaxploitation. Discuss your experiences on the set of these movies.
MR: Well, Funny Lady was a mixed cast; the stars were mixed, too. The Wiz caught on. Sidney Lumet, a white director, signed on to direct the movie with Diana Ross as its lead. This production gave me the chance to explore my knowledge as a choreographer as I worked on big group production numbers. I was assistant choreographer in that movie and responsible for the choreography performed by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Ted Ross; I would learn their routines. Louis Johnson and I had to be in contact with all of the stars, the dancers, and the models.
TDR: What are some of your thoughts on the entertainment industry today?
MR: I strongly believe that we must keep Black Theater going! Collaborations in theater are so important. If we can just think about opening ourselves up to the possibilities, there will be a great future for the arts. I am glad to see that the young people are so free and doing what they do and how they do; however, I wish that they would take the time to see where it came from. Some do.
TDR: So history plays an important role in theater …
MR: Those who do not take time to look at the history fall short. I believe that if you just research where you came from–even though you did not come of age during that time– you can learn. I am trusting that there are enough of young people who will understand the history of their art to get a full picture of what is happening politically in the arts; to gain a sense of how things connect. I try to teach my students that, and there are about six of them who are writing their own scripts and doing the big productions.
TDR: Why did you decide to become an artistic director and instructor?
MR: First thing, the body starts to break down. Personally, I became limited as a dancer and, on top of that, I had to consider what was necessary for my son and me. Also, I had to find a way to continue to hone my craft. What is more, there were challenges to living in New York City. So, I moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to work for Twin City Stage Theater; I started the musical theater department. I went into churches and universities and found so much talent to cast! As I worked with these individuals, I realized that I just wanted to direct and choreograph. In 2007, Larry [Leon Hamlin, the Artistic Director] passed away, and the board asked if I would assume the role at the North Carolina Black Repertory Company.
TDR: Now, you have retired! Why?
MR: As far as my retirement, it is my 77th birthday present to myself. If I couldn’t do things that I have been trying to catch up on because I didn’t have enough time … commitments at work require me to be there all time, and I feel obligated to carry them out. I try to respond and help the community out as much as possible.
TDR: Do you have some projects in the works now?
MR: Yes I do. I have a ballet called Mother’s Tree which is a tribute to my mother and grandmother; it really covers about 3 generations. I want to convert that into a play. It has been successful as a ballet because all of my work has a strong movement background. With that experience, I could see it as a play or an operatta; I could use spoken word. Also, at this stage of my life, I am trying to do different things. Companies have asked me to come and create some projects but I could not when I was working. My friends warn me that once people know I have retired many projects will come my way. Now, I have a choice to at least be able to tell them “I can do it. Let’s try it!” At least I am able to say I have the time …