La Jolla, CA--- The music of my Dad’s heart was opera. He was my first tutor in that world. Paul Robeson’s and Marion Anderson’s names came into our conversations so many times that I almost felt that I knew Robeson although at the time I had never heard any of his recordings.
I think he would have liked Daniel Beaty’s solo show/production “The Tallest Tree in the Forest”. The La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre with direction by Moisés Kaufman (“I Am My Own Wife” and “The Laramie Project”) are mounting it in the Potiker through Nov. 3rd.
Daniel Beaty, who takes on the persona of Paul Robeson and all the other characters in Robeson’s world such as his Dad, his wife Essie, President Truman, McCarthy, his Soviet-Jewish poet friend Yitzhak Pfeffer and a host of others in his world, is an acclaimed star in his own right. He won Obie Awards for “Through The Night” and “Emergency”.
The actor moves through Robeson’s life carefully crafting a picture to audiences capturing the essence of a man who struggled and worked hard all his life to do all the right things only to have been born a little too soon (1898-1976) to pioneer for the rights of the Blacks or to avoid the treachery of a government gone mad in singling out those whose politics differed from the prevailing winds of the times. This was in the late forties early fifties.
It was seemingly OK to appear on Broadway and movies, sing overseas and represent the US Government by appealing to the country to buy war bonds, but not to mention the shabby treatment these same warriors received when they came home. It’s a classic case of putting Afro-Americans in their place (which is still going on today) while blaming the messenger rather than the facing down the message. Robeson found himself in the middle of a conundrum.
Some background information and in no particular order: Paul Robeson was the son of a run a way slave. He was an internationally renowned opera, stage and screen star, a football All-American and class valedictorian from Rutgers University, and a New York University School of Law graduate receiving top honors for his debate and oratory skills. He was elected Phi Betta Kappa.
He held a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award; his signature performance “Ole Man River” from the Broadway musical “Showboat” catapulted him to being the most performed and recorded voice of that piece. Not to be overlooked, he was a husband, father and a civil rights activist.
Unfortunately for Robeson, his rise to fame that took years to nourish and allowed him access to places and things most would envy, caused his fall from grace under that same system that afforded him the freedom to speak and perform and give. When his voice rang out at the Paris Peace conference and in the Soviet Union railing against segregation and for the rights of African-Americans… “Its unthinkable that American Negros could go to war against the Soviet Union, that has raised our people to full human dignity in one generation…for those in the United Stares, that oppressed us for generations…”the talking heads said, “Enough”. He was called before Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Beaty’s performance is pitch perfect as he ticks off each and every aspect of Robeson’s life singing (throughout the performance) no less than fourteen of the songs famous in Robeson’s repertoire: “Ole Man River”, “Steal Away”, “The Joint Is Jumpin’”, “Shortnin’ Bread”, “Go Down Moses”, “Battle Of Jericho” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” to mention a few.
He also does a short stint as “Othello” a part Robeson performed three times, the first being in 1930 in the United Kingdom and on Broadway (and won rave reviews) over the objections of those questioning whether a black actor should be cast in an all white production (Shakespeare identifies him as a Christian Moor).
Sharing the stage with four musicians, Kenny J. Seymour, John Reilly, Jennifer Epler and Lorin Getline, Beaty takes us on an unforgettable journey weaving, with his inimitable characterization and beautifully resonant voice, a picture of a man almost forgotten in history but badly in need of the recognition that is being given him in this playwright’s convincing one-man production of “The Tallest Tree in the Forest”.
Derek McLanes multi layered and expansive set allows plenty of room for Beaty to move about as well as for John Narun’s informative and appropriate projections to be seen with clarity. David Lander’s lighting is significantly effective in both the opening and closing moments of this inspirational play.
I highly recommend your seeing this before it moves on.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Nov. 3rd
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Solo Performance
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Dr. La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: $15.00-$49.00
Venue: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre