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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Many Faces of Paul Robeson

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo: Don Ipock

Daniel Beaty's The Tallest Tree in the Forest, playing the BAM Harvey March 22—29, celebrates the dynamic life of legendary performer and political activist Paul Robeson. He is best known for his iconic baritone and leading roles in The Emperor Jones, Show Boat, and Othello—a remarkable accomplishment despite the fact that his star rose at a time when segregation was legal. But his life trajectory took many turns and Robeson wore many hats as a public figure and outspoken champion of peace and justice:

As a scholarship student—and the third black student ever—at Rutgers University, Robeson played varsity football and was a two-time All-American. He received a Phi Beta Kappa key for his scholarship, and graduated as class valedictorian.

Robeson graduated from Columbia Law School in 1923, though worked only briefly as a lawyer, citing intolerable racism. His scholarship here brought him to Harlem during its monumental Renaissance.

Among the causes he most ardently supported were anti-lynching legislation in America, Indian independence from Britain, anti-colonialism in Africa, and organized labor.

Robeson was a lifelong supporter of Stalin and the Soviet project, performing concerts in Moscow and receiving the International Stalin Prize in 1952.

In 1958, Robeson released Here I Stand, part manifesto, part autobiography. He also played the title role in the RSC’s 1959 production of Othello.

After a series of mental and physical illnesses, he returned to the US and lived for the next 13 years
in seclusion. Robeson died in Philadelphia in 1976.

Learn more about Robeson's life and legacy in Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, released by PBS in 1999 as part of its American Masters series...

Tectonic Theater Project's The Tallest Tree in the Forest, written and performed by Daniel Beaty, comes to the BAM Harvey Theater March 22—29.

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