The Tallest Tree in the Forest: Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
"The Tallest Tree in the Forest"
An overly rousing primer on the courageous and supremely gifted Paul Robeson, but far too elementary to elicit the dramatic power of his conflicted life of conscience and dissent.

The African-American singer-actor Paul Robeson, a polarizing activist blacklisted during McCarthyism whose roles ranged from "Othello" to "Show Boat," is the subject of this one-man bioplay staged in downtown L.A.

Paul Robeson, his father born in slavery, achieved international celebrity as an athlete and scholar, singer and actor, activist and role model. Still, even observed with the healing distance of time, he remains a polarizing figure, a spokesman for humankind yet resolutely his own man. He was widely reviled as a traitor during the Cold War even by his erstwhile allies, his passport revoked and his career destroyed. In our house, when the children were growing up, no Thanksgiving could be celebrated without hearing him sing the patriotic “Ballad for Americans,” which he first recorded in 1939.

Robeson never recovered from the calumny he suffered, but his reputation has progressively rehabilitated as his towering influence and achievement gets increasingly rediscovered (a short, rather sketchy, documentary on him won an Oscar shortly after his death). Pedagogically, Daniel Beaty, who both wrote and is the sole player in his The Tallest Tree in the Forest, here after a successful run at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., oversimplifies a complex man and multifaceted career into borderline hagiography. Nevertheless, he manages to convey an accurate sense of his exceptional dimensions, commanding personality, historical importance and commitment to his convictions.

That alone constitutes fairly grand ambition, and when one considers that in doing so Beaty also performs some 40-odd different characters himself, the feat compels admiration and no little wonder, despite a tendency to tub-thump a hero-worship far too facile for such a stubborn, often vain or naive, indefatigable idealist.

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Curiously, the first act lapses most into questionable ellipses and generalities, relating the showbiz saga of his career rise through playing in Eugene O’Neill (while inexplicably omitting any reference to his The Emperor Jones, which starred Robeson in revival on Broadway and on film) and singing “Old Man River” in the long London run of Show Boat. Anachronistically, Robeson’s entry into the Harlem Renaissance in 1923 is heralded by Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumping,” written in 1938. Beaty makes much hay of how often this Othello slept with his Desdemonas (Peggy Ashcroft and Uta Hagen among them), giving him a chance to add dimension to his own portrayal of Essie, Robeson’s wife and manager.

Yet when the narrative shifts into Robeson’s escalating consciousness that the American race problem was inevitably tied to considerations of world class struggle and colonialism, these more difficult issues are handled with a more sure-footed consideration of ideological nuance. Robeson was far from the only foreigner to be hoodwinked by the Soviet Union’s ostensible official tolerance in the early 30s, particularly contrasted with his experiences on the streets of Berlin at the same time. Nor can there be any doubt as to the pivotal role played by the Communist Party as virtually the only stalwart institutional support for the civil rights movement in the same period. (And let us not forget that even Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie wrote and sang apologetic folk songs towing the Party isolationist line in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact invading Poland.)

One of the most effectively stirring sequences is Robeson’s inspiring support for starving miners marching from Wales to petition Parliament for relief, though oddly no mention is made of his most important cause opposing fascism in the 1930s, his consuming commitment to the Loyalist government in the Spanish Civil War. In contrast, the infamous 1949 concert in Peekskill, N.Y., where Robeson sang to 25,000 supporters who were then set upon by a rioting mob of violent racists supported by a complicit police force, is given truly visceral due, enhanced by the familiar newsreel footage.  

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Nevertheless, even when confronted with tangible personal exposure to the anti-Semitism of Stalin’s postwar pogroms, Robeson refused on tactical rationalizations to reveal these truths in a West that he felt was the primary threat to world peace after Hiroshima. With great integrity, the play dramatizes this clearly, though only after hedging audience sympathy by showing Robeson obliquely criticizing such policies in his last Russian broadcast concert, singing a Warsaw Ghetto resistance song in Yiddish.

Even so, Robeson’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, condenses his relative ineffectuality into a misleadingly stirring moral posturing. While there is no question that his persecution was fueled by his anti-lynching and pro-African independence activities, it goes unmentioned here that Robeson accepted the Stalin Peace Prize in 1951, of which the mildest observation one can make is that it was incendiary to his adversaries and justifying for his ego. That he was undeterred by Khrushchev’s revelation of 1956 Stalin’s crimes was demonstrated by his continuing relationship with top Soviet officials after his passport was finally restored.

Still, Beaty does pack a lot into an entertainingly compressed length, and the gist is close enough for an introductory presentation. A strong case could be made for Robeson as a tragic figure, and one awaits the drama (or perhaps an opera) that could do justice to the inescapable dilemma of refusing to compromise his principles and the strength of character to absorb whatever punishment that required. He stood his ground, no matter what, and he was right, “prematurely” right, about so much of such consequence that his failings certainly in retrospect look comparably trivial.

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Beaty has made a specialty of creating such multiple-part solo works for himself in the New York award-winning Through the Night, Emergency and Mr. Joy. His bioplay about one of Mr. Robeson’s immediate influences, the pioneering black classical singer Roland Hayes, Breath and Imagination, proved another crowd-pleaser at its recent run at the Colony in Burbank. The energetic Beaty, a resourceful showman and preternaturally confident performer, lends the sometimes stiff with dignity Robeson a touch of George M. Cohan razzmatazz, here given superb support by director Moisés Kaufman and a crack design team, who make the most of the large Taper stage, even with a single actor.

While he neither looks like Robeson, nor could he or anyone else approximate that inimitable singing voice, Beaty has the power to put over Robeson’s big numbers convincingly and commandingly, uncannily nailing the breath, pulse and cadence of Robeson’s personal interpretations, if not his sound. 

Venue: Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum, downtown Los Angeles (runs through May 25)

Cast: Daniel Beaty

Director: Moises Kaufman

Writer: Daniel Beaty

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: Clint Ramos

Lighting designer: David Lander

Sound designer: Lindsay Jones

Presentation of The Kansas City Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse Production in association with Tectonic Theatre Project