The La Jolla Playhouse brings a legend back to life: “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” playwright Daniel Beaty takes the stage solo
By Khea Pollard
Arts & Culture Editor
Paul Robeson was once regarded as “the tallest tree in our forest” by civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune at the pinnacle of his performance career. Daniel Beaty embodies the legendary scholar, athlete, actor, singer and human rights activist in his one-man show.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” is written and performed by Daniel Beaty and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Kaufman known for works such as “The Laramie Project” and “I Am My Own Life.” Lofty in onset but huge in delivery, the show chronicles the life of Paul Robeson as one of the best known African American artists of the 20th century.
Beaty opens the show by singing one of Robeson’s most popular songs, “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical “Show Boat” (1936). His classically trained vocals are breathtaking. The metaphor of the rolling river foreshadows Robeson’s perseverance through persecution following his ascent into activism.
There are 13 musical numbers total, plus the reprise of “Ol’ Man River” toward the end of the first act. Every piece is woven into the play with a purpose. The powerful lyrics that comprise the musical selections are used appropriately to move the storyline and provide relevant insight into Robeson’s artistic and political decisions.
“Battle of Jericho” and the Negro Spiritual “Go Down Moses” are delivered at a turning points in the show when Robeson decides to support the anti-lynching crusade in America and encourages relationally between low wage workers, Jewish and African Americans.
The show was beautifully written to illustrate to the audience some of the most pivotal moments in the icon’s life. Without the aid of additional cast members, Beaty chose to recreate intimate moments influenced these decisions. He does this masterfully by fulfilling multiple character roles.
Each character he assumes has a different voice, which at times, provides comical relief and a unique perspective. All of the characters portrayed such as President Harry Truman and Robeson’s wife Eslanda, felt distinct and personalized.
As the show progresses, Robeson’s political activism does too. His talent as an actor and performer allows him to travel internationally by invitation. Impacted by his experiences abroad, he makes the shift from film star to human rights activist.
Most notably, his travels to the Soviet Union during the age of the Cold War era heavily influence his views on Communism and issues of equality and human rights.
The more politically affluent Robeson becomes abroad and domestically, he is regarded as threat to national security in anti-communist McCarthyist propaganda circulating throughout the U.S.
Beaty does a remarkable job in portraying Robeson’s strength and weakness during this period of persecution stating, “…They’ve cut me down but my roots run deep. They spread all through the soil of America.” Moments like these can be found in abundance throughout the show, upholding a political undertone within the show’s brilliantly artistic format.
“Tallest Tree” is successful in providing a complex view of a prolific persona, no small task for a one man show. Robeson is portrayed as a virtuosic figure that made a choice to commit himself fully to activism.
“The artist must make a choice to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice.” This line is recited by Beaty at the opening and closing of the play. These are Robeson’s own words, a resounding epithet capturing his principal mission. Choose to be enlightened.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” is showing at the La Jolla Playhouse through Nov. 3.