Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Tallest Tree in the Forest: Paul Robeson at BAM

Wickham Boyle Contributor THE EDGE 
Wednesday Mar 25, 2015
Daniel Beaty

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson  

As we are witnessing with the ongoing events in Ferguson and with the resurgence of interest in the Civil Rights movement coinciding with the release of “Selma” and the fiftieth anniversary of the march, the course of freedom and equality for people of color in America has never been easy. To witness the struggle for equality through the eyes of a once in a lifetime talent like Paul Robeson is even more ponderous and saddening, as seen in BAM’s staging of “The Tallest Tree in the Forest.”

Daniel Beaty is a Yale-educated actor, singer, writer and motivational speaker and who has crafted a two hour long foray into the remarkable life of Paul Robeson who achieved artistic fame in the 1920′ and ’30s only to be brought down by his political beliefs and the rabid assaults of communist witch hunts in the 1950’s. Beaty has undertaken to portray not only the man, but also dozens of the characters that populated his complicated life.

Robeson was the son of a slave whose father was an autodidact and a minister who endeavored to raised sons who would go on to raise up their race. Both Paul Robeson and his brother received an education in Latin and Greek, but only Paul went on to higher education, his brother perished tragically on the streets.

Robeson was only one of three African Americans to graduate from Rutgers University and he did so as the Valedictorian. He then went on to graduate from Columbia Law School where in a poignant scene we see his later employment in an upscale, largely white firm where he is racially assaulted by a secretary and further told by his boss that he must write briefs for the white lawyers as clients would not stand for a “Negro attorney.” This moment provided the impetus for the very proud Robeson, encouraged by his ever-supportive wife Essie, to leave the law and pursue a career on the stage. Before this moment Robeson had been singing largely to support his educational arc.

The work is directed by Moises Kaufman and musically enhance by a trio of talented musicians who provide themes and support for the many songs, like “Ol’ Man River”, “The Joint is Jumpin” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” among a dozen others. Beaty’s voice is not Robeson’s, but he delivers effortless songs, and a panoply of voices for the various characters with an aplomb that carries the evening along.

We move from Harlem to the new equality of the Soviet Union, to the downfall of that dream and the murder of many of Robeson’s Jewish friends, and yet we witness his inability to stand up for his endangered colleagues because he believes it might unseat the dream of equality for Blacks in Russia. As always, political paths are not strait and as a man of conscience we see Robeson tested again and again.

His artistic route takes him to London to star in “Show Boat” and he attained star power there only to be ousted from one of his favorite haunts, the Savoy, when visiting Americans would not abide eating in an establishment that served Negros. Many of these emblematic scenes are enacted and enhanced with the use of John Narun’s wonderful video and stills projected on the bare back walls of the Harvey Theater, making great use of Derek McLane’s sparse, innovative stage design.

Robeson went on to star in an ill-fated film, “Sanders of the River” about the colonization of Africa, launch an stage acting career in Eugene O’Neil’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and to portray Othello twice, engaging in affairs both times with his Desdemonas, Peggy Ashcroft and Uta Hagen. Through it all, his wife Eslanda, remained at his side for her entire life and acted as his agent.

In the 1950’s when he was a target of the House on Un-American Activities Committee, his state side performance contracts evaporated. And to further hamstring Robeson, his passport was confiscated rendering him unable to work anywhere.

This show has a monument life to cover in historically turbulent times and as a one man show, sometimes the jumps and cuts chosen combined with the many voices portraying the likes of Paul as a child to J. Edger Hoover, to Truman, to Russian dissident poets, to Robeson’s brother and to Essie herself, can be a bit discombobulating.

The evening does continue to show us the distance we have traveled to achieve a kind of equality and it illuminates one of the great tall trees that towered across the landscape as an artist and a humanist.

“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” runs through March 29 at the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton Street in Brooklyn. For information or tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit

The Lion ROARS, what a great piece of theater

The Lion

by Wickham Boyle
Wednesday Feb 11, 2015
Ben Scheuer

Ben Scheuer  (

A 5 p.m. matinee on a snowy Saturday seemed like a punishment, when all I wanted was tea and comfort, but two minutes into Ben Scheuer’s “The Lion” at the Culture Project, was the only place I could imagine being. What a joy, a wild unexpected ride and a heart-opening experience.

Benjamin Scheuer is tall and fit and so handsome with a shock of messy brown hair and fingers so fast on any of the seven guitars arrayed on stage that for the music and the visage alone you may be willing to surrender to his one-man show. His voice is never perfect, but so alluring, and even better than perfection is the story he has to tell. Scheuer is sharing with us, ever so generously, the tale of his coming to manhood. And we all know that voyage is full of trips, cracking voices, explosions, challenges, sadness and joys, but his is a gripping one.

Scheuer had a stern mathematician father who also harbored a desire and talent for music. He taught young Ben to play on a banjo constructed out of a pie pan with rubber bands and Ben and his dad played music on and off with his two younger brothers. The three boys comprised the lion pack inside the family’s pride. Scheuer’s father was mercurial, one day sweet and funny the next screaming and abusive. Ben caught his full wrath in the weeks leading up to his 14th birthday and then tragically his father died before there could be a denouement.

His British mother took young Ben and the other lion cubs back to England for boarding school and more strictness. Finally Ben headed back to America to be an erstwhile musician; along the way he falls in love, plays hard rock, falls ill and recovers. Well, we knew he would get better otherwise someone else would be telling the story, but knowing he ascends doesn’t in any way diminish this glorious, uplifting piece.

The stories are heartfelt and never maudlin, the music is sweet, or tangy or sad and sings and twangs to tug on our heartstrings. The piece moves with the well-paced direction of Sean Daniels and combines so seamlessly that at the end the tired, cold audience rose to its feet cheering.

The Lynn Redgrave Theater, one of the many spaces at Culture Project, is a clean theater, one that seems to accommodate many different kinds of work at varying levels of wonder and resonance. But the technical elements, the design, the sound, the lights are always so well wrought. In this instance the spare but alluring set design was by Neil Patel, light by Ben Stanton and sound, which worked so well by Leon Rosenberg. This is a great winter interlude.

“The Lion” runs through March 29 at The Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit


Liz Swados’ “The Nomad” at The Flea theater

The cast of 'The Nomad'

The cast of ‘The Nomad’  (

Winter still has us in her icy grip, but at the innovative Flea Theater on White Street downtown, the hot winds of the Sahara blow across your face and you can be transported for 70 minutes to a different time and place in a new work called “The Nomad.” It is composed and directed by Elizabeth Swados, with a book and lyrics by Swados and Erin Courtney. Swados is a composer and lyricist best known for taking epic stories and far flung cultures and translating them into musical excursions. She dives in headlong.

Swados began by composing a trio of Greek plays that rocked LaMama Theater in the early ’70s. Directed and co-conceived by Andre Serban, these seminal works went on to tour the world and be revived serially at La Mama and elsewhere, always to great acclaim. Swados is a novelist, a poet and often she find tortured souls to channel and to whom to give second life.

She has done this again with the life of Isabelle Eberhardt, whose brief life, 1877-1904 has received great attention of late. In 2012 composer Missy Mazzola mounted a full-blown opera called “Uproar” about Isabelle’s perambulations in the Algerian desert. It received a glorious production at the Kitchen.

Eberhardt convinced her mother to voyage to Algiers so she could explore and convert to Islam, a religion that fascinated her. Isabelle dressed as a man and took this purloined freedom into battles, sexual escapes, mosques and to her favorite place the dreamy desert. Her dual nature, man and woman, was also evinced in her joint ability to consort with the French Colonists and the native Berbers. She was a writer by trade and kept extensive journals, which spun stories and winsome poetry. She died tragically at 27 when a flash flood consumed her nomadic home while she was deep asleep.

“The Nomad” attempts to tell in quick vignettes, each with an accompanying song — 22 of them in total — the life and times of Isabelle Eberhardt. The set, props, costumes and puppets create simple scenes utilizing woven muslin panels, turbans, indigo fabrics, hookahs and lanterns carried by the large and talented ensemble cast.

Isabelle has two portrayers, the very young and talented Sydney Blaxill, just out of NYU’s Tisch program and her more grown self, played by Terri Madonna. On occasion the two women come together to sing the longing and passions of an equally bifurcated character.

Behind the well-lighted scrim (Daisy Long designer) there is a marvelous five-piece ensemble, a host of musicians playing the sounds of the Call to Prayer, the echoes of the souk and the songs of Isabelle’s soul. Although the music at times hits a dissonant chord for me, the overall effect does transport to a place and culture I so adore.

Especially in modern times when the conflicts within the Middle East seem to spill out constantly, it is refreshing to see a portrayal of the potential roots of resentment stemming from colonial captors and cultures not fully respected. “The Nomad” takes pains to show the history of the time as well as of Isabelle, a character so driven to live the life she yearned for that she established a way to live multiple lives in one short span.

The Flea Theater continues to turn out work that seems large scale in a small surrounding due largely, I believe, to its program of nurturing young theater artists through The Bats. This gives The Flea not only a way to help educate the next generation of great artists, but also to provide staging that fills a room, from the staircases to a rolling dancing number called the Oblivion Seekers who populate an opium den while singing in amazing harmonies.

The Nomad may not be a perfect evening, but it is a wonderful interlude nestled in a different culture and the heat of the desert. And a life of wanderlust and fearlessness as evinced by Isabelle Eberhardt is certainly something to laud in times of too much fear.

“The Nomad” runs through April 6 at The Flea, 41 White Street in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit

Smart Mouth: an interview with Fran Leibowitz

*published on CBS Watch Magazine



Fran Lebowitz has been hilariously deconstructing the American landscape for decades with a signature sneer that peppers her essays, interviews andPublic Speaking, a documentary made by Martin Scorsese.

Born in 1950, Lebowitz decamped from Morristown, N.J., after being thrown out of high school for insubordination. She pursued a variety of jobs, including driving a taxi, cleaning houses and selling ads for a magazine, all the while observing the iconic world of 1970s New York. By the age of 21 she was penning a column called “I Cover the Waterfront” for Andy Warhol’sInterview magazine. Her biting tone and rapier wit won her a dedicated following and her essays were collected in two volumes, 1978’sMetropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies.

Since then, she has scowled and prognosticated on subjects as diverse as children, travel, insomnia, politics, her love for her 1979 pearl gray Checker Marathon automobile, and the state of the world. In 2007 Vanity Fair named Lebowitz one of the year’s most stylish women (she has her tailored suits and jackets made by Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard). But there have been no new books. Decades ago, Lebowitz sold a book proposal for a novel called Exterior Signs of Wealth. In theory, it is about artists who want to be rich and their obverse, the fabulously wealthy who yearn to be artists. In her usually self-deprecating way, Lebowitz describes her failure to write not as writer’s block but rather “writer’s blockade.”

On a rainy day at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, Lebowitz talked toWatch!, between cigarette breaks, about … well, everything.

Watch!: I checked out The Fran Lebowitz Reader from the New York University library and brought it with me, thinking it would be a fun act of insubordination for you to sign the book; like vandalism in reverse. A first edition, now signed and worth more.
Fran Lebowitz: I am not a library fanatic, but I’m glad they have a library at NYU. A library is a repository for books, and soon we may not have books. A library without books is a restaurant, and it seems to be the goal of every single institution to just be a restaurant.

Watch!: I heard a debate on National Public Radio about whether the foodie fad had replaced the love of music.
Lebowitz: I am quite gluttonous; I like to eat. But I do not think it is an art form. The reason people are so interested in food is because it is so easy to know about. Even at a high level it is still not learning Anglo-Saxon; it’s not that complicated. I don’t mean cooking, I mean eating. When people say, “Do you want to try this place? It got great reviews,” I say, “In the end, it’s dinner.” Usually cultures that are this decadent have reached a higher peak of civilization first. We didn’t. We went right from primitivism to decadence without having a culture in between.

Watch!: Rereading your work, it was interesting to think about the people who criticize it as dated, with the reference to discos and poppers.
Lebowitz: This is true about novels, too. I am not comparing myself to Jane Austen, but no one ever says that she is too much writing about her time. Even if you don’t think you are writing about your time, you are. To me what profoundly dates work is wrong ideas. Of course, all details date. But when people respond they do so, and either they ignore the details or they are interested in them. What never progresses is human nature. People still like Shakespeare, and that is not because of the details, not because people are kings, but because people’s emotions and their responses to things are unhappily never changing.

Watch!: Is it the place of the cultural observer to merely comment, or to help people make changes?
Lebowitz: I don’t think I am setting about to help people. People who actually help people are doctors. I have always wished that people would listen to me and do what I say … but they never have. So whenever people criticize me and say, “You shouldn’t do that, because you are a role model,” I say, “Are you kidding? I have been trying to get people to do what I want for my entire life and they never do.”

Watch!: You were widely seen playing a judge onLaw and Order. Now that it’s over, is there some-thing else you want to be on?
Lebowitz: I’d like to be on the actual Supreme Court. You don’t have to be a lawyer to be on the Supreme Court. I think it has probably been ages since that happened, but I feel I am qualified. I am very focused on the Supreme Court in general, probably out of envy for not having that job. It is always surprising to me when it takes them a long time to decide on something. Because I think, “Are you kidding me?” That is actually the easiest judging job, to say, “Is it constitutional or not?”

Watch!: Is it true you don’t carry a cellphone?
Lebowitz: No cellphone, no microwave oven, no computer. The reason I have no computer is that I never learned to type. When they first invented computers I thought it was a fast way to type. I thought, “I don’t need this, I don’t know how to type.” I didn’t know the whole world was going to go on this machine. I have a vacuum cleaner, but luckily I don’t use it. I don’t have a very sympathetic relationship with machinery. I am the kind of person where if something breaks, I hit it.

Watch!: But you have a wonderful car?
Lebowitz: I have had the same car since 1979, a Checker Marathon. When I first got it, I was young and I used to drive it around town; I am too old now. I would have lots of cars if I won the lottery. I have only one photograph displayed in my house, and it’s of my car.

Watch!: In the documentary Public Speaking, you say that genius comes around only once in a lifetime. Who would you consider the geniuses in your lifetime?
Lebowitz: The three greatest geniuses of the 20th century were Picasso, Balanchine and Stravinsky. We weren’t contemporaries, however.

Watch!: How about contemporaries?
Lebowitz: There may be people at that level of genius, but I’m not aware of them. One thing that seems extremely unlikely now is the undiscovered genius. Every season there is a new genius in every field, and that was never the case. It is a very rare thing to be a genius. It is so rare that Albert Einstein is still the example of genius. Until fairly recently, people didn’t get called geniuses if they got rich. I am sure Mark Zuckerberg is very smart at business, but it is my understanding that he didn’t invent anything. He reconfigured something. So did Martha Stewart, but she didn’t say, “I invented setting the table!”

Watch!: In the same documentary, you said that AIDS wiped away the most critical voices in the arts.
Lebowitz: What I was saying was there was a general acknowledgment that many very good artists died, but I also said that the audience died too, and there is no acknowledgment of that. And the level of artists dropped in some way. If Charles Ludlam had lived, the other lesser directors may not have risen up. In a dark way, it is very helpful if people better than you die. That was my point. If all the people more talented than you die, then the culture comes around to you. So many people died and that is an unusual thing, except in a war.

Watch!: What do you think Andy Warhol would have thought of the cultural shift where there are no longer powerful critics, but the power of millions of critics on the Internet?
Lebowitz: I don’t know what Andy would have thought, but I imagine he would be flabbergasted at the place he holds as an artist, which is ridiculous. But of course, he would not be holding the place he does if he had lived. And I know this from bitter personal experience, because I sold all my Warhols for nothing two weeks before he died. Prices were that low. Now they will never go down because there is so much institutional and personal financial investment in keeping those prices high.

Watch!: What do you think of the Kardashians ?
Lebowitz: Here’s what I think … and this is such a prevalent thing, that I who have never seen the Kardashians have an opinion and know who they are. I don’t know one from the other, but I know there are many of them. I do think that obviously many people in this country deserve the Kardashians, but I am not one of them. I feel the same way about them as I did about George Bush. Many people deserved him to be the president, but I am not one of them. The Kardashians deserve George Bush as the president. I am sure they will be replaced by some other group of morons. It is interesting how long this has lasted. It shows that even the very bottom of the culture is slow in changing.

Watch!: What is your idea of a perfect weekend?
Lebowitz: I make a deliberate effort to not go out of my apartment between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. The perfect weekend is one where I am alone, reading on my sofa, which is the perfect sofa. Designed by me to be read on. You lie with your head against the arm without a pillow. It is leather, which is the perfect fabric for a sofa because it doesn’t eat you. There are no pillows; it is comfortably firm, but doesn’t envelop you. The perfect sofa is like the perfect companion; you’re not aware of it. Furniture is one of my primary interests in life. My father and grandfather were upholsterers. So I grew up in a sea of upholstery samples. Certainly one of my favorite activities is looking through a Sotheby’s furniture catalog, which is almost wholly a fantasy.

Watch!: What is a trait you admire most in other artists?
Lebowitz: Productivity or a lack of sloth. I think that most people admire what they don’t have. I always admire writers who are highly productive and good, because many are productive and bad. But if they are productive and good then I admire and resent them.

Watch!: What’s on your bedside table?
Lebowitz: A telephone, two pairs of eyeglasses, a crystal cigarette box that was a gift from the San Francisco Public Library that is engraved to me, and a television remote control. But not books, because I do not read in bed. I gave up reading in bed because I can never sleep and I thought reading is too stimulating. Nothing can put me to sleep. If I were shot in the head I would still be awake. The only time I have no trouble sleeping is in the afternoon. I like to nap.

Watch!: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Lebowitz: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I feel guilt when I do something wrong. I feel constantly guilty for not writing, but that is so constant and long term, it is just a part of being awake. But I think pleasure is good. How can pleasure be bad, unless you are a psychopath and your pleasure is being a serial killer? I don’t feel guilty for smoking. I am addicted to smoking and I do not feel equal to giving up this addiction. It is a habit, not a character trait. You are not a good person because you are a vegetarian and you are not a bad person because you eat a hamburger.

Watch!: What do you fear most?
Lebowitz: Blank paper. Writing is very difficult and I am very lazy. Writing is not the only difficult thing that I don’t like to do, but it is the only difficult thing I am supposed to be doing. And now, I’m going outside to smoke.