Paul Robeson was once described as one of the most well-known African-American performers in history. His iconic renditions of classics like “Ol Man River” and “Deep River” and a prolific recital career made him a household name at a time when blacks struggled for basic rights. For the son a runaway slave, he defied the odds in a tremendous and profound way that still inspires the work of artists today. One such artist, Obie award winning writer and performer Daniel Beaty’s latest one-man show traverses the fascinating terrain of Robeson’s life in a fresh and thoughtful way.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forrest” is like a full-length biopic brilliantly rendered for the theatre. Its journey is extensive, starting with Robeson as a child playing football with his older brother and ends with Robeson, slowing with age, reflecting on his life just before dying.
Beaty is a one-man tour de force. As he opens the show with a stirring rendition of “Ol Man River,” you immediately realize you’re in for a treat. The play is a delicate weave of dialogue and song, all performed solely by Beaty. He moves in and out of every character with astounding effortlessness. The dialogue is beautifully constructed with Beaty (as Robeson) narrating within many of the transitions. He masterfully stories complex points in history with rich anecdotes and touching humor- making the difficult subject matter palatable for all age groups. He also explores Robeson’s controversial political standings and his struggles with infidelity without a shred of judgment or commentary, which is difficult to do in a piece like this. Beaty’s portrayal of Paul Robeson boldly defies the one dimensional box American history books have placed him in.
The dialogue is complimented by outstanding singing. Along with “Ol Man River,” the play features thirteen musical selections, pieces like “Steal Away,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.” Beaty sings all of them with stunning conviction and powerful resonance. The music is strategically placed, deepening the meaning of the story points where necessary.
Quite simply, “The Tallest Tree in the Forrest” is a musical and story-telling marvel. Written entirely by Daniel Beaty and directed by Moisés Kaufman (best known for writing "The Laramie Project"), the show premiered to a packed house at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Downtown LA this weekend. The show will run until May 25. And, you should run to see it! It isn't often that a story like Paul Robeson’s is told with this much care, attention, and authenticity.