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 bam.org