With Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II and Kansas City, Mo. Mayor Sly James in the audience the 2013-2014 season of live theater erupted on Friday night, Sept. 6. Both political leaders were present for the world premiere of The Tallest Tree in the Forest, produced by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre to start their 49th season. The one-man play was written and performed by Daniel Beaty to a standing ovation on the Copaken Stage in the Power and Light Entertainment District.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest, directed by Moises Kaufman, is the story of the life of Paul Robeson, an African-American performer and activist during the cold war era. Robeson rose to the height of his profession performing on Broadway, in films and around the world. “He was one of my heroes,” Congressman Cleaver said, “my football coach had his picture in the locker room.” “They did an excellent performance!” he went on to say.
It was his being outspoken about the treatment of blacks in America and his association with the Soviet Union and communism that eventually led to his being blacklisted during the McCarthy period. Robeson remained true to his beliefs up to his death in 1976 at the age of 77.
It was easy for the audience to see that Beaty was putting his heart and soul into every bit of dialogue and every song that he performed. The show began with him taking the stage and if you were close enough you could see a tear running down his cheek. The show ended with the tear on cue rolling back down the same cheek.
It is astounding to hear Beaty sing, “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat, a song that Robeson was famous for. At the end of the show the only thing that was missing was one more repeat of the song. He has a fabulous singing voice and it showed in songs like; “Ballad for the Americans”, “Shortnin’ Bread” and “Happy Days are Here Again” among others.
Beaty played every character in the show with only a minimum use of scenery, costumes or props. He changed characters, from the wife of Robeson, to Robeson, to a young Robeson and many others by use of voice, facial expression and body language. His timing was magnificent and did not waiver while changing from one character to another. After the show Mayor James stated, “I was amazed at how he (Beaty) was able to transition between characters and get the emotion right every time.”
The special effects, especially the projection design by John Narun, helped the audience to transverse time as Beaty took his characters through monumental events of Robeson’s life.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest is a must see and runs through September 28 at the Copaken Stage. After closing in Kanas City the play will move on to the La Jolla Playhouse in California.