Arena Stage The Tallest Tree in the ForestBy Bob Ashby • Jan 17th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage-Kreeger, Washington DC
Through February 16th
2:00 with intermission
$40-$120 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed January 16th, 2013
Written and performed by Daniel Beaty, The Tallest Tree in the Forest is one of the most ambitious and complex examples of the first-person biographical show, a genre pioneered by Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight and including successful pieces about Emily Dickinson (The Belle of Amherst) and Harry Truman (Give ‘Em Hell, Harry). Beaty’s subject is the great 20th century African-American singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson. Beaty gives a powerful, passionate performance as a ferociously intelligent, immensely talented, intensely driven man who attained wide fame and influence but whose career was wrecked by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 50s. Given that many, especially younger, people today may not be familiar with Robeson, the production is a welcome introduction to this man who refused to allow his life, his causes, and his art to be separate from one another.
One of the most remarkable facets of Robeson’s talent was his voice, a deep bass that sustained its power and clarity even in quiet passages and could convey sweetness and gentleness as effectively as anger and passion. Beaty, a classically trained singer, sings 13 of the songs that Robeson performed in his career, from the famous (“Old Man River”) to the almost unknown (“Zog Nit Kaynmal,” a song of resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that, for me, was the musical highlight of the evening). Beaty’s excellent voice does not sound precisely like Robeson’s, having a higher baritone edge, but Beaty succeeds at the important task of conveying his subject’s approach to interpreting his material and how Robeson felt about what he sang.
An important way in which The Tallest Tree in the Forest is more complex than Mark Twain Tonight or other biographical shows of its type is Beaty’s use of a variety of voices other than that of Robeson himself to tell the story. Beaty portrays Robeson’s wife, Eslanda (“Essie”), Harry Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, and a bevy of reporters, among others, as they interact with Robeson. He switches back and forth rapidly between characters, changing physicality as well as voice to match. Often, especially in scenes with Essie, he engages in back and forth conversations, playing both people in the exchange. Beaty pulls off the multiple characterizations with considerable comic and dramatic impact.
Beaty’s handling of the play’s female characters is problematic, however. Essie — a brilliant anthropologist, author, and activist in her own right — is portrayed, especially in the first act, as fussy, bossy, snobbish, and elitist, with a highly annoying voice, almost to the point of caricature. The portrayal mellows in the second act, however. Beaty gives Mary McLeod Bethune, herself an important activist and a leading educator in the segregation era, an even more grating persona. What isn’t clear is whether the historical Robeson perceived these or other women in this way — and, if so, whether the perception was accurate — or whether their presentation in the play is a matter of Beaty’s imagination of how Robeson might have responded to such people.
In boiling anyone’s life down to a two-hour play, an author must be selective in determining what to include and exclude. Some key episodes, such as Robeson’s work for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and his depression and harsh treatment in mental hospitals in the early 1960s, are omitted. However, Beaty hits the main points: Robeson’s talent, his success, his unstinting opposition to racial and economic injustice, and his attachment to the Soviet Union, which played into the hands of those who sought to end his career. The play wisely does not excuse Robeson’s prolonged advocacy for the Soviet Union, which continued even after general knowledge of Stalin’s crimes and the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolt had alienated most former supporters, but it goes far to make his views understandable in an era when American racism seemed intractable and Russia presented the appearance of equality. If Robeson was, as the play suggests, a tragic hero (the “tallest tree” cut down), then this was his tragic flaw.
The play’s complexity extends to the technical production, highlighted by the use of projections (designed by John Narun) on the set’s back and side walls illustrating various episodes in Robeson’s life (e.g., Welsh miners marching for higher wages; the Peekskill riots, in which an anti-communist mob attacked Robeson, Woody Gutherie, Pete Seegar, and other performers and audience members following an outdoor concert). The lighting design (David Lander) is itself very detailed, especially for a one-person show, and provides one of the evening’s most dramatic moments when, in combination with projected photos of lynchings, a series of large silhouettes of hanged men take over the walls of the set. Kenny J. Seymour leads a piano/woodwinds/cello trio that effectively accompanies Beaty’s songs.
The first words of Beaty’s script are from the original 1927 lyrics to “Old Man River:” “Niggers all work on de Mississippi, Niggers all work while de white folks play…,” leaving no doubt that Robeson’s life was about combating the racism depicted in those lines. As briefly pointed out in the second act, Robeson made significant changes to several lyrics in later concert performances of the song. Among others, “Get a little drunk and you lands in jail” became “you show a little grit, and you lands in jail.” “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’,” became “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, …” That fight, the same spirit that animated the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, was the theme of Robeson’s life, to which Beaty does justice in The Tallest Tree in the Forest.
Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson
Photos by Don Ipock
- Paul Robeson: Daniel Beaty
- Music Director/Conductor/Piano: Kenny J. Seymour
- Clarinet/Flute/Musical Contactor: Rita Eggert
- Cello: Aron Rider
- Artistic Director: Molly Smith
- Executive Producer: Edgar Dobie
- Director: Moises Kaufman
- Music Director/Incidental Music and Arrangements: Kenny J. Seymour
- Set Designer: Derek McLane
- Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
- Lighting Designer: David Lander
- Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones
- Projection Designer: John Narun
- Production Stage Manager: Craig Campbell
- Assistant Stage Manager: Michael D. Ward
- Dramaturg: Carlyn Aquiline
- Assistant Set Designer: Shoko Kambara
- Assistant Sound Designer: Anthony Mattana
- Directing Assistant: Amber Emory
- Props: Justin Titley
- Light Board Operator: Paul Villalovoz
- Assistant to the Lighting Designer: Nicki Rosecrans
- Spot Operator: Rachele Carey
- Sound Engineers: Aaron Allen, Adam Johnson
- Projection Programmer: Rock Lee
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Gerri Ford
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10055.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.