NEWARK, New Jersey A Houston family reunion highlighted the nearly four-hour "Paul Robeson: Voice for the Millennium'' concert Tuesday night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Whitney Houston, her husband Bobby Brown and her mother, Cissy Houston, all performed in the show, which paid tribute to the Princeton, New Jersey-born Robeson and raised funds for Robeson-inspired charities.
The younger, Newark-born Houston, wearing a form-fitting, olive-green evening dress with a matching, dyed fox stole, complete with face and tail, sang an a cappella snippet of "I Loves You, Porgy'' before delivering a moving rendition of "You'll Never Stand Alone.''
Her father, John Houston, was Robeson's godson.
"As I was growing up [my grandmother] told me of this wonderful, wonderful man, who could do anything, anything, from sports to academics to singing,'' Houston said from the stage. "I didn't believe at that time that a black man could ever,
ever do that, and I understand that why I stand here today is because of Paul Robeson.''
Much of the evening's excitement centered on her. The concert, attended by approximately 1,800, was one of the singer's few public appearances since a marijuana possession charge against her in Hawaii was resolved earlier this month.
Houston later sang backup for Brown as he performed his hit "Every Little Step.'' Brown wore a leather jacket and leather skirt.
"I'm a little crazy with my skirt!'' Brown said, as the audience cheered.
Cissy Houston closed the show with soaring rendition of a gospel song called "This Day,'' written especially for the occasion. She was backed by two gospel choirs.
Along with the Houstons and Brown, singers Angela Bofill, Denyce Graves, Sam Harris and Melba Moore, actors Avery Brooks, Ossie Davis, James Earl Jones and Lynn Whitfield, the Dance Theater of Harlem, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri,
the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Marble Collegiate Community Mass Choir and Paul Robeson Jr. participated in the multimedia event, which was taped for a March airing on PBS.
Other highlights included Bofill's torchy version of "God Bless the Child.'' Bofill wore a gray dress with a black top, and she sashayed toward the front of the stage as the Duke Ellington Orchestra played behind her.
"[Robeson] opened doors for all of us as entertainers and black entertainers, especially,'' Bofill said backstage after her performance. "He broke down a lot of boundaries.''
The Marble Collegiate Community Mass Choir thrilled the audience with its vocal control on "Jesus Is A-Listening,'' and Davis and Jones read passages from Robeson's speeches. Brooks, who has long been associated with Robeson, acted in a filmed montage of one of Robeson's stage triumphs, "Othello.'' The audience donned special glasses for a 3-D movie, "A Harlem Fantasy.''
Before the show, the
Paul Robeson Humanitarian Awards dinner was held across the street from the arts center at the Robert Treat Hotel. Honorees included LaFace Records co-founder and new Arista Records chief executive L.A. Reid.
"Paul Robeson felt that art was a solvent to racism, and I think his life's work is exemplified in today's entertainment business,'' Reid said, after receiving his award. "You have artists like Eminem, who top the urban charts, and artists like Jay-Z, who top the popular charts. So the lines of racism have been blurred largely due to the life work of Paul Robeson. It encourages me every day.''
At the dinner, Reid, who said he's just moved to New York, said he and Arista donated $25,000 to the New York-based Paul Robeson Foundation.
Robeson (1898-1976) was an athlete, scholar, singer, actor and humanitarian, whose activism on behalf of civil rights, anti-colonialism and the Soviet Union drew controversy in his lifetime.
Proceeds from the concert,
for which tickets ranged from $75 to $1,000, will benefit inner-city students of Rutgers University in Newark and the Paul Robeson Foundation Educational Mission, which teaches people about Robeson's life.