031: Working with Paul Robeson in “Sanders of the River” 1934

Paul Robeson settled in England in the 1930s, singing, acting, and doing both in several films. In “Sanders of the River” released April 1935 he played Bosambo, and got to meet several politically-minded Africans who had small roles – including Jomo Kenyatta, future president of Kenya. Based on the 1911 novel by best-selling author Edgar Wallace, the film used location shots taken in Africa including dancing.

Despite Robeson’s training as a lawyer he seems to have neither read the book nor noticed that Bosambo was a name that did not suggest modern values. Co-star Nina Mae McKinney, an American, realised the roles were stereotypes and acted accordingly. Recruiting black actors and actresses among London’s students, the producers called on older residents including John C. Payne, an American who had settled in 1919, and Marie Lawrence, a Jamaican who was in Britain in 1906.

Writing from Flat 7, Spencer Court House, 47 Spencer Road, London SW18 on 9 July 1934 Marie Lawrence wrote to the London-born (1906) Amy Barbour-James: “Just a line to say I was asked if I knew any other coloured lady like myself whom I could introduce to the producers of the film in which Mr. Robeson will be starring. Let me have your reply….tell your Dad I shall look after you”. On 22 July she wrote “Dear Amy. Thank you for your letter in which you said your Dad was not averse to to (sic) your doing film. With regard to his questions re payment. Those who do what is called ‘Crowd Work’ are paid a guinea per day, & for small parts from two to five guineas per day & these are paid at the termination of each day’s work. In reference to the dressing I am afraid I do not at present know about that, but those in which I have taken part have all been clothed, in fact I think the Lawsons [?] have some say in those matters so I think you need not worry about that. Should you decide about going to see the gentleman who asked me to introduce any ladies let me know as soon as possible so that I can arrange the appointment to see you when I shall phone you. With kind regards to you all, yours sincerely, Marie Lawrence”.

A guinea (£1.05) a day was good money in 1934.

Amy Barbour-James did take part. She told me in 1984 that John Payne had recruited some “rough” people from East London, and that Miss Lawrence was married to a non-English white, possibly Canadian, and was a Mrs Pearson.

Lawrence’s role as a singer in the Kingston Choral Union of Jamaica had taken an international dimension when she went with it to Liverpool in 1906, to promote Jamaican produce at a colonial fair. Billed as the Native Choir from Jamaica, their singing was so successful that they toured widely, and returned in 1907-1908. Bass Carlton Bryan worked as a singer-actor in 1910s London, and Miss Lawrence was singing in London in the 1920s, associating with South African nationalist Sol Plaatje, and the Coleridge-Taylor family.

Further reading: Jeffrey Green “The Jamaica Native Choir in Britain, 1906-1908” Black Music Research Journal (Chicago) Vol 13 No 1 (Spring 1993), 15-29 and also Jeffrey Green Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914 London: Cass, 1998.

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