The Kansas City Rep opened it’s season with the new play The Tallest Tree in the Forest on the Copaken Stage in the H&R Block building in downtown Kansas City, with the play running through Sept. 28.
The one-man show, based on the life and struggles of actor and activist Paul Robeson follows his life from a young man through his death. The show shows his many accomplishments and defeats as he struggles as an artist/activist and his rally against injustice.
Daniel Beaty wrote and stars in the show. Moises Kaufman directed Beaty in the one-man pieces that features a plethora of characters from Robeson’s life.
The 2-hour play centers mostly on Robeson’s role as an actor and singer, but relies heavily on his wife’s influence in guiding his early career. He married Eslanda Goode Robeson, who managed him most of his career, even after marital problems and separation. Robeson’s preference for affairs with white women come into focus in The Tallest Tree in the Forest.
Suffice it to say, Beaty gives an inspired and exhausting performance in the play. He plays Robeson, Eslanda, his father, his brother, a college football coach, a law firm owner, J. Edgar Hoover, Harry S. Truman, a Jewish poet, a myriad of reporters, and more than a dozen other characters, each with differing voices, posture, and gestures.
Beaty’s look at Robeson illuminates a man who claims that history will erase him, and that’s mostly correct. He is remembered mostly for one role, Showboat and the song, “Ol’ Man River.” Beyond that, few may know that he also played Othello as the first man of color to do so. From the production, Robeson found more popularity overseas in London than at home. There he found more acceptance into elitist society.
Paul Robeson’s travels and performances took him to the Soviet Union which proved to be the catalyst to his ties to Communism and the demise of his career and American popularity. Beaty does not apologize for this and works in into the production and leaves it for audiences to decide of his convictions.
In all, The Tallest Tree in the Forest contains much good and entertaining material. Some material would be lost on general audiences and middle-aged persons. So much of Robeson’s life and career developed in the 30s. By the 1950s ties to Communism ended his career. That leaves many events cloaked and trapped in time. Only people who lived in that time or studied that time would know of them.
Songs made famous by Robeson come back to life with Beaty’s vocal performance. He is a gifted singer and can perform Robeson’s music very well. Those vocal moments stir the audience members who remember them.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest contains a few strong words, but the theme is such that many would enjoy the show and learn from it. The show entertains. The Tallest Tree in the Forest is a great way to see the history that Robeson lived and helped create as an actor, singer, activist, and family man.
The show runs through Sept. 28.