Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson
By Darlene C. Donloe
Daniel Beaty is a theatrical bolt of lightning!
He’s known for wowing theater audiences with his one-man shows, (Through The Night, Emergency, Mr. Joy). But his latest offering as Paul Robeson in the Mark Taper Forum production of TheTallest Tree In The Forest may just be his best effort to date.
It is spectacular!!! It’s not only entertaining, it’s educational, scandalous, awe-inspiring, controversial, revealing, explosive, funny, eye-opening and heartwarming.
This one-man tour-de-force, accompanied by a live three-piece ensemble and directed by Moises Kaufman, explores the life of entertainer and activist Paul Robeson. This is the second show in Los Angeles this month to showcase Robeson. Keith David, who is equally spectacular, is enjoying a successful run in the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson, running through April 27.
The Tallest Tree In The Forest, presented in two-acts, starts off with Beaty appearing in the doorway at the top of some stairs. He descends slowly, takes center stage and soon thereafter he mesmerizes with a rendition of Ol’ Man River, which became Robeson’s signature song. Beaty’s voice has volume and passion and is a complete showstopper.
A powerful performer, what sets Beaty apart is not only his extraordinary storytelling ability, but his remarkable agility at portraying a myriad of distinct, rich characters giving them all individualized voices and mannerisms. He eases in and out of those characters with such compelling panache that you don’t see it coming. It’s truly astounding.
The elaborate and impressive set looks somewhere between a library, a living room, a ski chalet and an old theater. The addition of live music, including Beaty’s baritone voice on 13 songs, along with video of vintage, era-specific events adds texture. But, it’s the scene where several Negroes are hanging in silhouette that sets a powerful tone for the show. It’s emotional and uneasy - exactly as it should be.
The scene where Robeson delivers an impassioned speech at McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee is engulfing. While he, himself, was being accused of being un-American, Robeson intensely accuses the committee of being “un-American.” The scene was met with raucous applause at the Taper opening night.
Beaty not only stars in this turner, he also wrote, The Tallest Tree In The Forest. A gifted writer, Beaty doesn’t skim the service of Robeson’s life, he digs deep and reveals warts and all.
“In writing this play, I used research from a multitude of books, films and other resources,” says Beaty. “In the end, though, the play is my original writing, since the research has been filtered through my imagination and personal understanding of this complicated man. I have taken some poetic license, when necessary, to meet the unique conventions of theatrical storytelling. Still, I hope The Tallest Tree in the Forest honors the spirit and truth of Paul Robeson’s life and character.”
Beaty describes Robeson as a complicated man. It would be safe to say he was also conflicted. For instance, Robeson didn’t have a problem with speaking out against Russia’s sudden oppression of its Jewish citizens while he was in that country, but did have a problem expressing those same sentiments on his home turf.
Beaty as Jamal Joseph, Columbia University professor
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
At one point in the show Beaty, playing Jamal Joseph, a professor at Columbia University, suggests that there may be a generation of people who don’t even know the accomplishments of Robeson or who he is for that matter. That may be sad, but true. However, if any of those individuals gets a chance to attend one of these performances, they are sure to walk away with a secure understanding of who Robeson, his character, as well as his significance. He was an All-American athlete, a lawyer, actor and singer who became the first black actor to play Othello on Broadway. Above all that, Robeson, who reportedly could speak upward of 15 languages, was a man’s man who wasn’t afraid to speak his peace or run, head first, into his progressive causes.
Beaty delves into Robeson’s personal life rather extensively, particularly his relationship with wife, Dr. Eslanda ‘Essie’ Cardozo Goode Robeson, herself a woman of many talents. ‘Essie’ acted as Robeson’s manager and acting coach and helped to shape his legacy. There relationship was complicated, put apparently came from a place of mutual love and respect. He also touches upon Robeson’s relationship with his brother and his father, who was a former slave. Watching the scene where Robeson visits a Jewish friend in Russia, who knows he’s about to die at the hands of the Russians – is like taking a punch in the gut. It’s done exquisitely, pulling at every emotional core.
While Robeson was a revered activist, actor and athlete, he was also, allegedly, a womanizer. Beaty also delves into Robeson’s apparent fascination with the Soviet Union after visiting at the invitation of a friend. It was his stance on how Negroes were favorably treated with equal rights in the Soviet Union and how America could take some lessons on civil rights that raised the ire of the U.S. government. His sympathetic remarks about Russia once Stalin came into the picture made him a target for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The government eventually silenced Robeson by taking away his passport, thereby thwarting his ability to make money abroad. For eight years the government prevented Robeson from leaving the country. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the State Department couldn’t strip a citizen’s right to travel because of political beliefs. By the end of his life the once revered Robeson, who was the most well-known and popular Negro in the country, had lost the respect of his nation – and even more important – that of other Negroes who labeled him a traitor.
This show is not to be missed! As a part of the history curriculum, schools should flood the theater with students. As for adults, those who know who Robeson was should get reacquainted and those who don’t know Robeson’s story should get to know him. Whether one agrees with Robeson’s actions or not, his place in history is solidified. With Beaty at the helm, his story will live on.
The Tallest Tree In The Forest is directed by Moises Kaufman and written and performed by Daniel Beaty.
The Tallest Tree In The Forest, Mark Taper Forum, 135 Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 1 and 6:30 p.m. through May 25; No 8 p.m. performances Fri., Apr. 25, Sat., May 3 and Fri., May 16; no 6:30 performance Sun., May 11; no public performances on Tues., May 13 and Wed. May 14; no 1 p.m. performance on Sun., May 25; $20-$70 (ticket prices are subject to change); 213 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), The Tallest Tree In The Forest gets an E (Excellent).