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Monday, March 23, 2015

Rethinking Robeson

Daniel Beaty. Photo: Don Ipock
By Brian Scott Lipton

Tackling Paul Robeson’s tumultuous life story in one theatrical show is a monumental endeavor. Nonetheless, this Herculean undertaking has been taken on by two of America’s most gifted theater artists, writer-performer Daniel Beaty and director and Tectonic Theater Project co-founder Moisés Kaufman, in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, which receives its long-awaited New York premiere at the BAM Harvey Theater, March 22 to 28. (The show has played previous theatrical engagements in Washington, DC; Kansas City; La Jolla; and Los Angeles.)

Indeed, Robeson, who died in 1976 at age 77, can hardly be defined by any one description or any one accomplishment. This extraordinary African-American, born at the end of the 19th century, was a true groundbreaker—a son of a former slave who went from being valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University to a member of the National Football League, a Shakespearean actor on Broadway, a movie star, an internationally acclaimed singer, and a revered political figure.

Yet Robeson was as much sinner as saint. Although married, Robeson was also a bit of a womanizer, whose lovers included his Othello co-star Uta Hagen. His politics were controversial as well. He was a proponent of the Soviet Union’s policies in the early days of World War II and refused to apologize for the activities of Joseph Stalin. Robeson was eventually blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in the mid-1950s. Yet, unlike some artists who never survived that treacherous regime, Robeson regained some of his vaunted career status for a brief period, especially overseas, and was an early activist in the US Civil Rights Movement before succumbing to ill health.

Daniel Beaty. Photo: Don Ipock
In Tectonic’s production of The Tallest Tree (the title is one of Robeson’s nicknames), the 39-year-old Beaty inhabits not just Robeson at all stages of his life, but more than 40 other characters ranging from Robeson’s wife, Essie, President Harry S. Truman, poet Langston Hughes, and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. He also performs 14 songs associated with Robeson, including Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic “Ol’ Man River” (which Robeson sang as the character Joe in the 1932 Broadway production as well as the 1936 movie of Show Boat), “Ballad for Americans,” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

It is hardly surprising that Beaty would be attracted to Robeson, as both men overcame great personal obstacles before achieving professional success. Beaty grew up in a highly troubled home in Dayton, OH; his father was a heroin dealer who was arrested while Beaty’s mother was pregnant with him. Fortunately, the young Beaty found solace—and a life’s purpose—in writing and public speaking, sparked by a testimonial he penned to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while in the third grade.

Eventually, Beaty attended Yale University, where he first gained exposure to Robeson’s remarkable life story, and wrote a two-character play about Robeson that was seen at the Yale Cabaret. His later works include the award-winning solo shows Emergency and Through the Night; both were presented off-Broadway and in many regional theaters. He has also worked with BAM Education as part of Brooklyn Reads.

Neither Beaty nor Kaufman are strangers to BAM. Beaty and composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain co-created an orchestral work entitled Darwin’s Meditation for the People of Lincoln that premiered as part of the 2008 Next Wave Festival, while Kaufman made his BAM debut in 2013 as director of Tectonic’s The Laramie Project Cycle.

And while Robeson has been the subject of other works of arts, these two men are determined to keep his legacy alive. In fact, despite Robeson’s flaws—and what Beaty terms his “complicated place in American history”—Beaty still believes that Robeson is a hero. “I believe that it’s essential that we destroy this myth that heroes are perfect,” Beaty told The New York Times. “I believe Paul Robeson was the godfather of the Civil Rights Movement. And I believe America owes Robeson a huge apology.”

Now BAM audiences will have the chance to see Beaty present his case.

The Tallest Tree in the Forest plays the BAM Harvey Theater March 22—29.

Brian Scott Lipton is an established writer and editor specializing in the performing arts.

Reprinted from Feb 2015 BAMbill.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed Daniel Beaty's nuanced work but would ask he enunciate more clearly when singing. Two errors in the text: 1. Robeson would have flown into Idlewild Airport not LaGuardia which was not an international airport and not named that until later than the time period in the play. 2.1934 the Nazi's had come to power but no starving Jews in the streets of Berlin. Otherwise, bravo!!!!!