In an extraordinary one man show, Obie Award-winning writer and performer Daniel Beaty makes his Mark Taper Forum debut as the legendary performer/social activist Paul Robeson in The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Presented by the Center Theatre Group and directed by Moisés Kaufman, Beaty’s original play with music embodies splendid depictions of Robeson’s complex personality. The play spans Robeson’s life and triumphs from the early racism he witnessed during his childhood to his education at Rutgers. The audience journeys through his days as an NFL linebacker while at Columbia Law School, to his international acceptance as a star of stage and screen to the indignities he suffered during the McCarthy Era and ultimately to the financial ruin he encountered as a result of his political beliefs. Beaty concludes the play with a heartfelt, dramatic scene that encapsulates Robeson’s life as a widower suffering from depression during which he recognizes that he has ‘been cut down as the tallest tree in the forest.’
During the play, Beaty portrays over 40 characters! Those multiple characters included everyone from Paul Robeson’s father, his brother, his wife Essie, various media reporters, J.Edgar Hoover and President Harry Truman. Beaty gives each character depth, specificity, clarity and emotion as evidenced by their idiosyncrasies, i.e. Essie’s reactions to Paul’s infidelities; or their gestures, tone of voice and body language. There were many amazing highlights during the performance but Beaty’s effortless, imaginative, multiple-character conversations were, by far, some of the most engaging aspects of the play.
In addition to his impressive acting, the virtuosity of Beaty’s deep baritone voice seemed to channel Robeson’s own amazing voice. Beaty’s voice was powerful, forceful when necessary, and ideal for such songs as “Ol’Man River,” "Get on Board Lil' Chillun," "Go Down Moses," “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and the more joyous “This Joint is Jumpin’,” and "Happy Days Are Here Again." Beaty is joined onstage by Musical Director Kenny J. Seymour on piano, Glen Berger on woodwinds, and Ginger Murphy on cello.
Beaty makes use of the entire stage during his dramatic narratives, taking advantage of a multitude of microphones and props positioned around the set. Projection designer John Narun and sound designer Lindsay Jones are to be commended for their superior rear-screen projections and sound effects which added important aspects of Robeson's life via select vintage film footage.
Overall, The Tallest Tree in the Forest is a must see and delivers many of the most insightful challenges experienced by Paul Robeson during his life as a social activist for human rights. For more information and ticket details, please visit www.centertheatregroup.org/Tallesttree. The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.