Live at BAM: ‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest’ recreates, celebrates Paul Robeson
Mary McLeod Bethune, the renowned early 20th century African-American educator and advocate, once called Paul Robeson “the tallest tree in our forest.” You’ll be forgiven if Robeson’s name isn’t immediately familiar; he’s not a big name in contemporary music and theater. But in his time — which is to say a big chunk of the mid-20th century — he was a big deal in music, film, theater and, to some extent, politics.
Daniel Beaty’s one-man play, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” pays homage to this nearly forgotten tragic hero of the pre-civil rights movement era. Beaty also starred in the Moisés Kaufman-directed production this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Jumping from role to role, he singlehandedly worked his way through what was, in essence, a powerful biopic about the iconoclastic artist. The effect was something like watching a live version of an audiobook; an elastic voice guided viewers across an emotionally-charged narrative arc encompassing a variety of characters.
Standing at 6 feet, 3 inches, Paul Leroy Robeson may have been the tallest tree in most of the human forests he encountered, but he was a big personality as well. The son of an escaped slave-cum-Presbyterian minister, he became one of the first African-Americans to attend Rutgers University. He was an all-American football player, was a member of Phi Beta Cappa and Cap and Skull and graduated as class valedictorian in 1919. He later received a law degree from Columbia Law School, having put himself through the program while singing, acting and playing professional football.
Robeson married Eslanda “Essie” Goode in 1921, and she is credited with pushing him toward pursuing acting and singing as a profession. Leaving his nascent legal career amid the inner-office racism so prevalent at the time, he went on to become a big star onstage, in film and in the concert hall. He became famous for his renditions of folk songs and spirituals. His big baritone voice set the standard for the now-famous song “Old Man River,” the most recognizable tune in the 1927 musical “Showboat,” which was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein with a role custom-tailored for Robeson.
Beaty began his play on a big, dramatic note, by singing the controversial lines that had been cut from “Old Man River” in most subsequent revivals of “Show Boat.”
“N—–s all work on de Mississippi,
N—–s all work while de white folks play…”
The song, about the seemingly never-ending struggle faced by Black people, was a solid basis from which to launch into the story about a life that was formed around the same struggle. Throughout the play, Beaty drew upon a theme of anger and frustration over the fact that, in a country where freedom and equality were supposedly guaranteed, they never seemed to materialize for African-Americans.
“When you have the ears of millions, what do you say? What do you have the responsibility to say?” Beaty asked, as Robeson.
Speaking as Essie, Beaty softened his voice, sounding genteel and feminine, but pulling taut a line of hard sarcasm whenever the Robeson character’s hubris (and philandering) became too strong. She was an apt foil for the larger-than-life entertainer, and Beaty’s seamless transitions between the characters (and their various accents) in Robeson’s life, the newspaper columnists and writers who panned and praised him, and even President Harry S. Truman and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, pushed the story along a smooth, but intense glide toward its denouement.
In a conversation between Robeson and President Truman — one that happened in real life — the back and forth Beaty portrayed between the two men was reminiscent of a scene in “Selma” between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. While Dr. King had been after civil and voting rights legislation in the mid-’60s, Robeson had pressed Truman for anti-lynching legislation nearly 20 years earlier. Both were told the same thing by the nation’s politician-in-chief: the timing isn’t right.
Beaty, surrounded by a number of pre-war props — old microphones, homey wooden furniture and piles of hard-bound books — was accompanied by a pianist, cellist and woodwind player, and, occasionally, historic film clips and photographs projected on the back wall of the stage. He recreated for the audience Robeson’s political awakening, his turning against fascism and racism, his moral affair with Soviet Russia — where he was convinced all people were equal under the law — and his political and professional destruction by the FBI. The narrative is compressed — smoothed over in spots compared to Robeson’s actual life — but it gets the point across.
Although Beaty’s voice wasn’t quite as deep as Robeson’s, he sang with the same manly strength, a heavy vibrato coloring his tone. As his Robeson limped away, defeated by the forces he had fought so hard against, it was impossible to escape the fact that, in this production, Robeson had become like his character, Joe the Mississippi River stevedore, from “Show Boat;” tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’.
In Beaty’s brilliant performance, a message emerged from the ashes of a life that had been crushed by forces that would eventually relent to the march of human progress. Man doesn’t choose his talents; talents are God-given; a sacred trust. Robeson could have stayed the path of comfort and avoided trouble, but he stood up for what he believed in. Many things have changed since his lifetime, but others haven’t. Bearing that in mind, taking a closer look at the life of a disgraced Soviet sympathizer four decades after his death begins to make sense.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” plays at BAM through March 29.
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