By Darlene Donloe
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that two major theater houses in Los Angeles are producing one-actor shows about Paul Robeson at the same time.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest, written and performed by Daniel Beaty, opens at the Mark Taper Forum this weekend and runs through May 25.
The Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson, starring two-time Emmy Award-winner Keith David, opened its run March 12 and was originally supposed to close March 30, but has extended the performances through Apr. 27. The new dates are April 18-20 and April 25-27.
Some might question why two different Los Angeles stages would choose to have two different shows about Robeson in production at the same time. Why not?
Not only is April the month of his birth, Robeson is surely worthy of the dual honor. One of the most accomplished and well respected men of his or any other time, Robeson was on the front lines as a political activist for civil rights long before it was fashionable. Threatened and berated, he stood his ground. Not only was he an advocate, he was an impressive actor, singer, lawyer and an All-American football player.
His brilliant, sometimes turbulent, but meaningful life is the subject and focus of Dean’s Paul Robeson.
(Dean, who made his Los Angeles directorial debut with the show, regrettably, passed away April 14, in Los Angeles at the age of 83).
There is no getting around it – Keith David, in the title role, – quite possibly gives one of the best performances of his career. Even hampered with a knee injury that postponed the show’s opening, ever the trooper, David doesn’t miss a beat as he commands the stage with a grace and elegance that only a veteran performer of his stature can pull off. His booming voice is reminiscent of Robeson’s, his delivery, whether dramatic or comedic, is engaging. The result is a fulfilling and entertaining night of theater.
Armed with the poignant, emotional, and sometimes hilarious dialogue provided by Dean, David conducts a master class performance as he tells the story of a man who came to symbolize the strength and determination of the Negro.
A charming storyteller, David inhabits Paul Robeson with a zeal and verve that is palpable. Holding the packed Ebony Repertory Theater audience in the palm of his hands, David, who is accompanied on piano splendidly by pianist/musical director Byron J. Smith, is like a breath of fresh air as he takes the viewers on a biographical journey. His rendition of Ol’ Man River is a show-stopper and worth the price of admission.
Presented in chronological order, Dean delves into Robeson’s personal, professional and political life. We watch as Robeson talks about why he stayed with his sister in Philadelphia, the conflict between his brother and his preacher father, becoming a star athlete, attending law school, how he tried to impress the ladies, how he tried desperately tried to avoid marriage, confronting bigotry, escaping violence and assassinations and more. And still he stood!
Usually there are pros and cons to a one-person show. Not so with this production. While it might be interesting to see David play off of other characters on stage, there is something more intriguing and theatrically challenging watching David unpeel various characters right before our eyes.
Dean’s words are the co-star of this production. It’s a presentation that takes the audience step-by-step from his childhood through to the man he would become. When doing a biographical piece there is no way a playwright can present everything about a person’s life. Everyone may not agree with what Dean has written, although it’s obvious by its insertion that he, himself, deemed it pertinent and pivotal, which is his prerogative as the playwright. What he’s deftly written encapsulates the breadth and depth that was Robeson. When he was writing the show, Dean, who met Robeson on a train when he, himself, was 13-years-old, said he wanted to honor him because he was inspirational and considered him his first real hero.
Dean, a Chicago native who also grew up in Pontiac, Mich., takes the audience from Robeson’s childhood in New Jersey to his adult life around the world. The Drama Desk-winner for The Sty of the Blind Pig, Dean, 83, writes how Robeson faced racism in the early part of the 20th century and how his determination and triumph in rising above it all, made him a modern day hero.
Dean’s Paul Robeson originally opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1978, later transferring to the Booth Theatre, starring James Earl Jones and directed by Lloyd Richards with original staging by Charles Nelson Reilly. The one-man play had two revivals on Broadway – 1988 at the John Golden Theatre and in 1995 at the Longacre Theatre. Both productions starred Avery Brooks and were directed by Harold Scott.
Dean’s Paul Robeson is befitting and worthy. The staging is simplistic, but the play’s content is powerful. Dean’s direction is non-intrusive and Dan Weingarten’s lighting illuminates. Costume Designer Wendell C. Carmichael’s placement of David in a tux, brings the appropriate sophistication to Robeson.
Robeson’s relevance has never waned. His accomplishments, which can’t be denied, are now part of the public record. His legacy is well-built. It’s always majestic to give honor where honor is due.
If the audience's 'OMG' reaction while leaving the show is any indication, Ebony Repertory Theatre may have to extend the run yet again.
Kudos to everyone involved in this robust, admirable and gratifying production.
Rest in Peace Phillip Hayes Dean!
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no!), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Paul Robeson gets an E (excellent).
Paul Robeson, Ebony Repertory Theatre, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, through Apr. 27, 2014; Fri., Apr. 18 at 8 p.m.; Sat., Apr. 19 at 8 p.m.; Sun., Apr. 20 at 7 p.m.; Fri., Apr. 25 at 8 p.m.; Sat., Apr. 26 at 8 p.m. and Sun., Apr. 27 at 3 p.m. (final performance). Tickets range from $30 - $60. Single tickets are available online at ebonyrep.org or by phone at 323-964-9766. Groups of 10 or more are available via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 323-964-9766.