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Daniel Beaty’s Robeson at the Taper, Ebony’s Robeson extends, ‘Godot’ doc on DVD

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson
Photo by Craig Schwartz

It doesn’t seem right that we laud Jackie Robinson for breaking the color line in baseball, yet we seem less familiar with the efforts toward racial equality made by Paul Robeson—a man Robinson was persuaded by HUAC to denounce for his alleged Communist leanings, much to his later regret.

Obie Award-winning actor-playwright Daniel Beaty has set out to change that with a stunning new one-man show about Robeson, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” (continuing in its world premiere through May 25 at the Mark Taper Forum). Propelled by Beaty’s powerful voice, the production is as dynamic as his portrayal of the legendary entertainer-activist, best known for his signature song, “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical “Show Boat.”

Although he offers rousing renditions of many songs (including some not normally associated with the man) and a monologue from “Othello” (Robeson’s most famous stage role), Beaty is less concerned with entertaining us than he is in depicting the offstage individual, whom he brings to life in all his complexity. There’s a lot of ugliness here and he doesn’t shy away from it, including a little known confrontation with President Truman over the post-World War II lynching of black men. “An artist must take sides,” Beaty/Robeson tells us, in a line that largely sums up the show.

From Robeson’s smart, sassy wife, Essie, to a university film professor, Beaty fleshes out the story with a multitude of personalities, portrayed in quicksilver fashion. Director Moisés Kaufman’s imaginative but minimalist staging enhances the performance, as do Kenny J. Seymour’s incidental music and arrangements and Derek McLane’s scenic design. Call 213-628-2772.
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Meanwhile, Ebony Repertory Theatre’s revival of Phillip Hayes Dean’s “Paul Robeson” (starring Keith David) has been extended by popular demand through Apr. 27, at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. In a sad footnote, Dean—who directed the production—died last week at age 83. Call 323-964-9766.

Where you can you find 45 theatres in one square mile? Times Square? Try the West End of London. What does it take to get a play on stage? And what does it take to keep a venue built in 1720 (Theatre Royal Haymarket) open and running? “Theatreland” is a consistently interesting 8-episode documentary (available next month on DVD from Athena) that includes interviews with everyone from Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (discussing their then-current production of “Waiting for Godot”) and Anna Friel (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) to the theatre’s ushers and maintenance crew.

More from Jordan:

Shakespeare and Solo Performance: How John Gielgud Paved the Trail for Ian McKellen & Others

Shepard’s ‘True West’ in Costa Mesa, Albee’s ‘American Dream’ in Fullerton

Orton’s ‘Loot’ at Fullerton’s STAGES

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