“At one point, he even said, ‘No more singing pretty songs.” Daniel Beaty was speaking about Paul Robeson, the legendary actor-singer-activist who is the subject of The Tallest Tree in the Forest, the play that Beaty will begin performing at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre tonight.
Robeson was a towering figure of his time, one whose significance went beyond his artistic accomplishments. The scope of Robeson’s influence and importance, and the balance between his role as artist and as activist, are keys to the work Beaty has developed. But it was Robeson the artist, and music in particular, that first brought Robeson to Beaty’s attention.
Beaty was a student at Yale studying classical voice. Among his areas of particular interest were spirituals, and it was while researching those that he became aware of Robeson and was introduced to that “powerful voice.”
Impressed and inspired by “the breadth of what [Robeson] had accomplished in his life,” Beaty became determined to tell the story of that remarkable man. What followed was “exhaustive research” on Robeson. Beaty “watched the films and read the books.” He studied what Robeson had written himself and what scholars had written about him.
Beaty became, as he told me, “very focused” on Robeson “through my lens.” And that lens is trained on someone who “epitomized the artist-activist,” someone who understood the links between race and class, between cultural and social issues. Robeson’s awareness of our “links between one another and our responsibility toward each other” is what Beaty considers “vital to understand.”
“Artists are in a privileged position to comment on and to participate in urgent social issues,” Beaty noted. They have “a crucial role to play in the social discourse.” Artists have special gifts and the ability to integrate thoughts and emotions which they are then able to communicate through story. They have the ability to cause people to think and feel deeply.
Beaty’s interest is not only academic and artistic, but also personal. He spoke about feeling a “similar dilemma” as an artist who feels compelled to engage social issues and who “stands on the shoulders of the artist-activists who have gone before me.” Beaty has spent a “significant amount of time” working with non-profits and in communities addressing the issues to which he has made a personal commitment. He mentions the challenges facing young people in urban centers and the issue of “mass incarceration.” (The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is the highest in the world, according to data from the International Center for Prison Studies.) Though he “initially discovered Robeson through his music,” the “international social discourse” which engaged Robeson’s activism “inspired and moved” Beaty.
Beaty told me that his tasks as a playwright are neither “to create a work that is hero worship” nor to “attack” his subject, but rather to “create a truly dimensional human being,” to “delve into the depths of his personality,” to become aware of what it was that influenced Robeson. As an example, Beaty pointed out that Robeson’s wife Eslanda was “a powerful scholar in her own right” and influenced his choice to become involved in activism as an artist. Beaty wanted to explore how “the circumstances of the time” caused him “to make the choices that he made.” Beaty uses “history and research” to “really ask the question of how did he become an artist-activist.”
Beaty spoke of Robeson’s increasing awareness of the plight of “people throughout the world” and mentioned the freedom movements in colonial Africa and “the first moments of what would become the civil rights movement” in this country. (Robeson championed anti-lynching legislation, for instance.) Beaty also spoke of Robeson’s efforts to unionize workers here and abroad. Beaty cited Robeson’s involvement with miners in Wales as an example of his international focus.
Beaty stressed that the cost to Robeson of his commitment to activism and social justice is “what the journey of the play is about.” The play asks what the cost of that was. “The cost is what the play explores.” In the era of the Cold War, prevailing sentiment marginalized and ostracized voices that were considered too far left, or insufficiently anti-Communist. The State Department denied Robeson a passport, and the infamous blacklisting of progressives during the McCarthy era resulted in cancelled appearances and the severe curtailment of a brilliant and important career.
Robeson had been an All-American football player while at Rutgers. After law school at Columbia, he played in the NFL. He was the first African-American to play Othello on Broadway with a white supporting cast (which featured the eventual Oscar-winner José Ferrer as Iago and the legendary Uta Hagen as Desdemona). That Othello set a record for the longest-running Shakespeare production on Broadway. He also played it in London opposite Peggy Ashcroft (before she became Dame Peggy and won her Oscar). His best-remembered film appearances were as Joe singing “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 film version of Showboat and the title role in the 1933 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.
I asked Beaty about what Robeson’s attitude might have been toward roles that could be seen to reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Beaty agreed that, “as an artist during the time he lived,” Robeson was “limited in the types of roles available to him.” Yet, even though “what was available was stereotypical,” Robeson “broke so many boundaries.” Beaty described a gradual shift of focus, however, as Robeson became unwilling to continue down “a path rife with injustice.” For Robeson, the issues of the day became “so urgent that he became unwilling to entertain for the sake of entertaining” and became convinced that he must “use his art in the service of activism.” Again citing the influence of Robeson’s wife, Beaty made the point that, despite an author’s use of racially offensive language, and despite the way in which a character could be perceived, Robeson’s “commitment was to do everything he could to imbue a character with dignity and humanity.”
In the play that resulted from all his research, Beaty told me, “I play over forty characters who Robeson meets. I sing fourteen songs he made famous.” This would seem to distinguish The Tallest Tree in the Forest from the earlier play Paul Robeson by Phillip Hayes Dean that debuted in the 70s starring James Earl Jones and was revived and toured with Avery Brooks more recently. I was lucky enough to see Jones’ performance at the National Theatre during its national tour and, as I remember, that play is entirely in Robeson’s voice. I believe Jones was joined on-stage by a piano accompanist; Beaty will be joined by an on-stage band.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest
Closes February 16, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Tickets: $85 – $120
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Directing the play is a man extremely familiar with the process of creating theatre out of real events. Moisés Kaufman brought us The Laramie Project, about the effect of gay student Matthew Shepard’s murder on the Wyoming town where it occurred, and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. He also directed Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife on Broadway. After seeing that production, Beaty “knew that I wanted to work with [Kaufman].”
After he had spent about a year working on the script and was ready to find a director, he was also performing a previous work at Arena, Emergency (then known as Emergence-SEE!). Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith invited Kaufman to this earlier show. Kaufman was at Arena working on his play 33 Variations, which, after the Arena run, played on Broadway with a cast led by Jane Fonda. Beaty described an “instant and deep connection” felt between the two men. Kaufman has shepherded the play through its subsequent development and Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Project is a producer of The Tallest Tree in the Forest.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest has been seen previously in Kansas City and San Diego, where the San Diego Reader called Beaty’s performance a “tour-de-force.” It will be here in Washington through Feb. 16, 2014.