REVIEW: Exploring a giant of a figure in Arena’s ‘Tallest Tree in the Forest.’
There is no easy way to effectively portray the complicated life of Paul Robeson, who by any standard was one of the most accomplished men of the 20th century — and that he achieved as much as he did as a black man is remarkable. Daniel Beaty, who wrote and performs the role of Robeson in “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” at Arena Stage fails to adequately define the flawed giant that was Robeson.
In the play, Beaty has made the decision to portray Robeson and a number of other significant characters in Robeson’s life — him as a boy, his father, his brother, his wife, President Truman, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Langston Hughes — with an attempt to give them presence on the stage by attempting to mimic the different voices throughout his monologue. Unfortunately, the mimicry becomes a distraction. The result is disconcerting and diminishes Beaty and the significant historical figure he is portraying.
There is undoubtedly little director Moises Kaufman could do with the way Beaty had structured his idea, but a one-man performance could have been much more effective if Beaty, who has a stage presence that does justice to what was an imposing six-foot-three Robeson, had taken the more traditional approach by just narrating his way through the crowded, complex life of a man who dominated everything he touched and was one of the first international celebrities of the early 20th century. His performance in the musical Jerome Kern Oscar Hammerstein II “Showboat” where he sang “Ol’ Man River,” a song that would become his signature achievement, brought Robeson international acclaim. Beaty’s deep bass beautifully echoes the familiar tones of Robeson’s voice that exists in recordings and in the 1936 film version of “Showboat.”
Robeson was a scholarship student and star football player at Rutgers University where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was a class valedictorian, while also becoming an all-American. He won 15 letters in four varsity sports. He received a law degree from Columbia, but gave up being a lawyer because of the racism he experienced in the law firm that had hired him. That brought him into the entertainment world and theater where he became the first black Othello, a role that would dominate the Broadway and London stage.
Beaty can be forgiven for overreaching in attempting to stage so much of Robeson’s enormous celebrity and his lifelong battles against racism and injustice. At one point, for example, he demonstrated on behalf of Welsh miners. His anger and arrogance brought him to the Soviet Union and he was enamored with what he perceived as a lack of racial prejudice there. It became such an intertwining symbol for him that he couldn’t bring himself to be critical of Stalin or his repressive government, even when he learned first hand that Jewish friends of his there where being persecuted and killed.
He was another victim of McCarthyism and the 1950s Red Scare. He was hounded by the FBI and faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was blacklisted and labeled a communist and his passport was revoked. It destroyed his ability to make a living and ruined his health.
Kaufman effectively uses historical images from the period projected onto the back wall of Derek McLane’s provocative but uncomplicated set with period microphones and the smart, focused use of David Lander’s lighting. The use of projected imagery is an effective mood enhancer that has become a more frequent tool seen in area productions.
Robeson is one of the great figures of the first half of the 1900s. He was a man of such complexity that it may not be possible to adequately portray him in any dramatic production. But he is certainly a man who deserves to be remembered. Beaty’s “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” is a good concept that in the end fails to explain who Robeson was. You come away frustrated that you still don’t know the man.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” continues through February 16, 2014 at Mead Center for American Theater at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets $40-$90 and available at 202-488-3300 and online here.