May 01, 2014
By Cora Jackson-Fossett
Being Black, brilliant, and radical is hard in 2014. Imagine life being Black in the early 20th century.
‘Hard” is actually a ‘diplomatic’ word to refer to lynchings, blatant discrimination, and ungodly behavior inflected upon African-Americans during this era.
Enter Paul Robeson, the first African American valedictorian of Rutgers University and an All-American football player for the school. Robeson, an incredibly brilliant artist, dared to challenge the status quo and his courage led to a documented, yet often forgotten, period of American history.
Daniel Beaty aims to give us a fresh awakening about Paul Robinson in the production, ‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest,’ now playing at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles.
Beaty, who opened the one-man show on April 19, delivers a captivating synopsis of Robeson’s life. His presentation not only shares known facts about Robeson’s outrage towards the insults, disrespect, and ‘benign neglect’ endured by Black Americans, but also discloses his profound disappointment about the ill treatment of Jews, Irish, American Indians and others affected by this peculiar approach to U.S. justice.
“I believe Robeson epitomizes the artist-activist. I think it’s a shame that he is not remembered in American and world history to the degree that he should be. Though he had some controversial politics, he made huge, huge contributions. I wanted to explore his life to be able to honor those contributions,” said Beaty, who also wrote the play.
The two-hour performance traces Robeson’s childhood, academic honors, artistic career and persecution by the U.S. government. Throughout the show, Beaty reveals his uncanny ability to depict the voices of various characters in Robeson’s life. He delivers rapid-fire conversations between Robeson and his wife, Essie, various media critiquing his plays and the attacks of U.S. senators during Robeson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.
Beaty also sings powerful renditions of popular Robeson standards such as “Ol’ Man River,” “The Joint is Jumpin,” “Get on Board Lil’ Chillun,” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” In addition, Robeson’s rumored infidelity gets exposure as well.
“I believe that if you really want to put a character into the social discourse, you can’t do hero worship. No human being on earth is perfect and if you tell a story of a perfect human being, people will become skeptical about what agenda you have that you’re leaving out truths about the person,” noted Beaty in an L.A. Watts Times interview.
“I think, ultimately, when you see a human being and their complexities, you actually can evaluate and value their contributions more.”
Without a doubt, Paul Robeson vividly comes to life through Beaty’s portrayal. Audience-goers will be enlightened and possibly amazed that one individual could achieve so much in the face of insurmountable challenges.
“‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest’ is an exceptional play. The ease at which Mr. Beaty was able to transition between characters transported the audience to those pivotal times in the life of Paul Robeson and of Black America, his connection to the Jewish community and the working class,” said Pam B., who attended the opening night show.
“I received a history as well as a life lesson about Robeson’s accomplishments, victories, struggles, determination and commitment to his (Robeson’s) ideals and beliefs despite the persecution in his fight for equality for his fellow man no matter the color of his skin,” she observed.
Although Robeson lived a fascinating life, it ended in near obscurity. As Beaty exposes Robeson’s last years, he reveals a broken, depressed and tired old man, finally worn out by the long fight for right.
Beaty is a talented actor, singer and writer who delivers a memorable performance. When this production ends, he begins his next project, this time on the big screen.
“I will be shooting my first film this summer, ‘Chapter and Verse.’ It deals with the issue of mass incarceration and a man who is out of prison after 10 years trying to find his way in the world.”
‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest’ runs until on May 25 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.