So here’s something to ponder. When you’re about to put up the first of two solo shows about the same man, is it better to be first on the scene? More famous? Have the longer track record?
The L.A. theater landscape is about to see whether there is sufficient hunger for the life and career of Paul Robeson to sustain a pair of solo Robeson shows that will open pretty much back to back. Heaven knows, there’s plenty of credibility and now shortage of talent behind both shows. And let the record reflect that while one is being billed as a world premiere production, neither play is entirely new, although in the case of entry #1, the performer is.
That would be “Paul Robeson” written by Phillip Hayes Dean presented by Ebony Repertory Theatre and featuring Tony nominee and two time Emmy winner Keith David ("Jelly's Last Jam," "Seven Guitars"). “Paul Robeson" charts Robeson’s life from his childhood in New Jersey to his work worldwide confronting racial barriers. Robeson pondered a career in law, but turned instead to acting, and later activism. In addition to facing a lifetime of racism, he is accused of being a communist and blacklisted.
Here’s the marketingspeak: “A powerful chronicle of the life of Paul Robeson, Phillip Hayes Dean’s play takes us from his childhood in New Jersey to his adult life around the world. An All-American athlete and a lawyer with Columbia Law School credentials, Robeson faces the racism prevalent in society in the early part of the twentieth century. He strives to rise above, and it is his triumph in that struggle that turns Robeson into a modern day hero.”
The play opened on Broadway in 1978 with James Earl Jones playing Robeson. Subsequent revivals in 1988 and 1995 featured Avery Brooks. The Ebony Rep production is playwright Dean’s L.A. directing debut. The play opens Friday and runs through March 30, at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 West Washington Boulevard, in Los Angeles. $30-$60. (323) 964-9766, www.ebonyrep.org.
Two weeks after “Paul Robeson” bids farewell, Daniel Beatty comes into the Mark Taper Forum with “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” another play (with music) featuring but a single actor (Daniel Beatty) enacting the life of a man who was, it could be argued, “the most well known black man in the world.”
Cue, this time, the “Tallest Tree” marketingspeak:
“We marvel at Robeson’s triumphs — All-American linebacker and valedictorian while at Rutgers, NFL linebacker while in Columbia Law School, and eventual international star of stage and screen (Showboat; the longest running Othello in Broadway history) — and we gasp at the indignities he suffered as a civil rights and labor rights activist during the McCarthy era.”
Sounding kinda familiar.
“The Tallest Tree” is billed as a world premiere, but Beatty has previously performed the show at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse. Moises Kaufman (“I am My Own Wife,” “The Laramie Project” directs in connection with his Tectonic Theater Project.
The timing of back-to-back Robeson plays is unusual if not unprecedented. Solo shows can be like blades of grass in this city, but nearly overlapping solo plays on the same subject? A bit less common. Wonder if - to take an out there example - Val Kilmer in developing his Mark Twain solo act "Citizen Twain" ever overlapped with a return bow of Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight.”
Not tthat there is any kind of monopoly on depictions of a man’s life. We’ll leave it to audiences to decide.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” plays April 12 to May 25 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., L.A. $20-$70. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.