Theater Review: ‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest’ at Arena Stage

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in "The Tallest Tree in the Forest" at Arena Stage. (Credit: Don Ipock)

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2014 – On Paul Robeson’s 46th birthday near the end of World War II, Mary McLeod Bethune honored him by calling Robeson the superstar entertainer, intellectual, activist and War Bond pitchman “the tallest tree in the forest.” Now appearing at Arena Stage, Daniel Beaty’s one-man show, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” builds on Bethune’s metaphor to create a compelling portrait of this complex, multi-faceted and controversial American.

"Tallest Tree" program art by Ricardo Martinez.
“Tallest Tree” program art by Ricardo Martinez.

To understand the genuine importance of this one-man tour de force, you really need a black history refresher course. That’s what Daniel Beaty delivers as he not only channels the greatest black cultural icon of the last century, but also re-creates a host of transitional supporting characters ranging from members of the “Negro” establishment such as Bethune, to various McCarthy-era slash-and-burn politicians.

Robeson’s legendary career sprang, in part, from his lineage. He was born the son of a North Carolina slave who had the courage to use the Underground Railroad to escape the South in 1858 on the eve of the Civil War.

Robeson was simply the greatest black Renaissance Man in American history: a college All-American and professional football player; a Columbia University-educated attorney and scholar; and an actor, orator, singer and activist who wielded his international celebrity with brute force, squarely and fearlessly confronting racism and fascism, serving as an activist role model long before anyone had the courage and fearlessness to do likewise.

To Daniel Beaty’s credit, he is able to pull off his stunning portrayal of this complex personality, thanks in part to an outstanding creative team, including music director Kenney J. Seymour. He subtly guides an on-stage three-piece instrumental ensemble that subtly, unobtrusively underlines this docu-drama while never overshadowing or competing with Beaty’s imposing presence.

Along with lighting designer David Ramos, set designer Derek McLane creates a rustic, two-story brickyard backdrop that adds an incredible sense of power to a parade of period graphics and visual images of striking coal miners in Britain as well as depicting the heady heyday of Harlem’s Cotton Club era.

It also doesn’t hurt to have Tony Award-winner Moisés Kaufman directing this production. He brings the creative genius behind “The Laramie Project” and his play “33 Variations” to his return engagement at Arena Stage.

Kaufman’s skills help bring out the genius of Daniel Beaty’s multi-talented personality. The actor himself had previously demonstrated his own considerable talent as an actor-playwright during Arena’s 2009 season run of “Emergence-See,” an earlier, manic, and much more contemporary one-man performance.

What surprised me on opening night of this production was how this tribute to Robeson also served to bring out Beaty’s musical training, developed during his studies at Yale University where he majored in music. In this production, he embraced 14 songs, including the classic Broadway spiritual that Robeson became synonymous with, “Showboat’s” signature tune, “Old Man River.”

Even more impressive is Beaty’s ability to re-create the interaction between Robeson and his beloved and tortured wife Eslanda “Ese” Goode Robeson, who molded and managed the career of this outsized personality from his university days in New York through their independent and ground breaking production on Broadway of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson. (Credit: Don Ipock)
Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson. (Credit: Don Ipock)

“Tallest Tree” is a gritty, moving evening of high drama, so be forewarned: Beaty’s language is real and raw, particularly when the play focuses on Robeson’s wife’s accusations of philandering with his leading ladies.

Other difficult moments in this play involve the judicious use of the “N” word and Beaty’s depiction of Robeson’s heroic but futile post-war stand against the wide-ranging terrorism of lynch mobs that were rampant in many parts of America. In 1946 alone, 46 black men were lynched despite Robeson’s two-year North American “Crusade To End Lynching.”

For his critics, though, it was Robeson’s infatuation with Russian culture and its stand against fascism that launched America’s long running love-hate affair with this epic figure. At his peak of celebrity power at the end of World War II, he was branded a Communist sympathizer and called on the carpet of the U.S. Senate by McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. It was his stalwart, real-life performance here that inspired even his great black female activist friend, Mary McLeod Bethune—who had extravagantly praised him years earlier—to recommend that “the tallest tree needed to be cut down.”

Over the years, Robeson’s intellectual critics have correctly noted that he does not fit into a comfortable black history niche. But, always the rugged individualist, Robeson still managed to have the last word: “The artist must take a stance and make a choice. I’ve made my choice!” he proclaimed.

Beaty concludes his more than convincing portrayal by leaving us with an aging and somewhat bitter Robeson, whose mighty engine was slowed at last by the ravages of a stroke. It was a sad life-postscript for this larger than life figure who had endured being blacklisted for the last thirty-seven years of his life and had even had his passport revoked.

It’s interesting to note that, by a strangely unique coincidence, Beaty’s tie to Robeson was his own birthdate of December 28, 1975—the very same day that Robeson suffer the fatal stoke that eventually led to his death in 1976.

Inspired by Robeson’s unparalleled life, Daniel Beaty has written and performed the quintessential four-star tribute to this towering public figure who did indeed prove to be “The Tallest Tree in The Forest.”

Daniel Beatty, director Moises Kaufman, and musical director Kenny Seymour. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)
Daniel Beatty, director Moises Kaufman, and musical director Kenny Seymour. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

Beaty’s play continues at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater through February 16.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

Arena Stage presents the Kansas City Repertory Theatre / La Jolla Playhouse Production of Daniel Beaty’s “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” in association with the Tectonic Theater Project. Written and performed by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Production length: Approximately two hours. Through February 16, 2014.

Arena Stage is located at 1101 6th St. SW, Washington D.C., convenient to the Waterfront Station on Metro’s Green Line. Parking in the area is limited.

Tickets: $40-120.

For tickets and information, call 202-488-3300, or visit the Arena Stage website.

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