It’s one of those names that you immediately know as an American, is important to our history. A name you know because you know it’s a name that you should know, and yet, all you really know is the name. That was my experience in attending the current Mark Taper Forum production, the one-man bio-musical, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a celebration of the life, artistry and activism of Paul Robeson.
The show’s prolific star, singer, writer and motivational speaker Daniel Beatty begins his performance with a moving rendition of the song for which Robeson was internationally known and celebrated, “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Showboat.” Beatty eases into a narrative that takes the audience back to his childhood where he identifies the conflicts between and within the races in the early nineteenth century. He is torn between respect for his big brother Reeve, who is defiant in his second class citizenship with society, and his Father, a man who “knows his place” in this ear of racism and is simply trying to keep his two Black sons alive long enough to learn how to handle such racism with his tact. It is a conflict that will drive Reeve from his home and drive their father into his own refuge of books and education.
This first story, where a lesson on football becomes a life lesson on race, sets the tone for the multitude of characters Beaty will perform during this impressive production; portraying as many as three people in each scene without missing a beat or muddying any of the different characters he engages.
Beaty continues to unfold Robeson’s story detailing his academic success, athletic success and his journey to becoming an attorney, subsidized by work as a vocalist and performer during the Harlem Renaissance. However, once he became a lawyer, he realized that racism and classism would forever inhibit his ascent to greatness in the legal field. As an entertainer, there seemed to be no limitations, so he embraced the performing arts wholeheartedly and never looked back.
Moreover, as a famous singer, Robeson gets his first taste of celebrity that is not tainted by race politics where he travels overseas. It is the vicious, senseless lynching of Black servicemen in America, coupled with the several more dignified discourse between the races abroad that leads Robeson to his ultimate lifelong role as activist.
Beaty’s Robeson is regal and dynamic, intractable, yet human. Beaty maneuvers the cornucopia of voices and character, dialects and accents, genders and ages, convincingly, and singlehandedly. Beaty’s musical biography features a Robeson who is not interested in “…a comfortable black history…”, but rather painting the portray of an imperfect American icon.
Perhaps the one element that could embellish this small production would perhaps be a slightly large support orchestra. Beaty’s performance was supported by a small onstage ensemble: piano, cello and various woodwind instruments. The gravitas and majestic quality of Beaty's barotone, for me, deserved to be enriched with a bed of music that was just as rich and voluminous.
The Tallest Tree in the Forrest is currently play through May 25, 2014 at:
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012