When Paul Robeson declared that “The artist must take sides,” he was referring to, in his own words, the “fight for freedom or slavery.” The activist film and stage actor was also talking about the fight for dignity, respect and the common wants to which so many oppressed people are denied. This truth is dramatized in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a world-premiere play with music by Daniel Beaty that’s a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre. As much a two-act history lesson as a portrait of Robeson, Tallest Tree crosses oceans as well as racial divides on its journey into the courageous if conflicted soul of a man who should never be forgotten. Though the lyrically troubling “Ol’ Man River” (from Showboat) is the song for which African-American Robeson will always be remembered, it’s important to be reminded, as we are by The Tallest Tree in the Forest, that Robeson’s booming voice relentlessly cried out for civil rights at the risk of his own life.
Beaty wrote and stars in this one-man-show, directed by Moises Kaufman. But this is no static, extended monologue – Beaty portrays multiple characters, including Robeson’s wife, “Essie,” President Harry Truman and the voice of sensationalizing newspaper scribes and a paranoid J. Edgar Hoover. Beaty is at his best when immersed wholly in Robeson, a man of fire and passion. The quick-change, back-and-forth dialogue he does with Essie and the showdown with Truman are less effective.
A three-person band supports Beaty’s able rendering of 14 tunes that personify not only Robeson’s fight for justice but the tenor of the times in the America in which Robeson lived. The latter is also explicitly depicted in John Narun’s projection design, a highlight of the production.
If even one person sees The Tallest Tree in the Forest then goes home, sits down and reads up on Paul Robeson, Beaty’s play will have served well the legacy of a man who enlightened as well as entertained, who stood up to bullies and bigots and who should receive more credit than he gets for rattling America’s collective conscience and effecting change.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.