BWW Reviews: Potent Paul Robeson Play Comes to Mark Taper Forum
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was the first African-American actor/singer to become an international star, originating the role of Joe in Showboat on Broadway and in the 1936 film. Born of a slave father, Robeson fought arduously throughout his career for the oppressed black man both in the United States and abroad. When he traveled to Russia to perform during the early days of communism, he was greeted with open arms and witnessed first-hand that the black man was treated as an equal to everybody else. His praise of the Russian treatment brought disdain upon him from the US government, and during the McCarthy era of the early 50s he was blacklisted. His passport was taken away... and his career literally came to a screeching halt. Now in a one-man play at the Mark Taper Forum through May 25 presented with words, movement and song, writer/actor Daniel Beaty creates a sturdily sterling portrait of the man whose towering power - with the nickname The Tallest Tree in the Forest - rapidly diminished.
Robeson was an athlete as well as scholar at Rutgers and graduated law school before becoming an actor. When he saw how limited his chances at practicing law were at the time - he was relegated to Harlem to represent only his own people - he decided to leave it behind and pursue his dream of success, in an alternate way. First came singing...then Broadway...Showboat, The Emperor Jones, and eventually Othello with a then lesser known Uta Hagen, with whom he supposedly had an affair, according to Beaty's script. Also there was an affair with Peggy Ashcroft with whom he shared the London stage. Married to prominent doctor Eslanda "Essie" Cardozo Goode, when she chastised him for having affairs with his leading ladies, he retorted, "I am free!" To which she proclaimed "Marriage is NOT freedom!" Yet she remained faithful to him until her death and stood by him through every trial and tribulation up to the interrogation before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which found him guilty of betrayal.
Beaty as actor does a superior job of portraying every character, male and female, including Robeson as a young boy. Some very humorous moments come as he quotes reviewers and critics. His publicity was always front page news whether praise worthy for his performances or vicious attacks against his activism. To hear him read the quotes is quite funny in a myriad of accents that are all right on the money. The spoken scenes, Beaty the writer intersperses with a multitude of songs including "Ol' Man River", "Happy Days Are Here Again", "Shortnin' Bread", "The Joint Is Jumpin' " or those of religious fervor such as "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" or "Go Down Moses". Beaty as singer shows tremendous vocal range and makes his spoken word to song transitions smooth and dynamically meaningful. He is backed by three skilled onstage musicians: Kenny J. Seymour at the piano, Glen Berger on woodwinds and Ginger Murphy on cello.
Derek McLane's simplistic set design with its brick walls behind, and John Narun's projection design of actual footage of visits to Russia, the peasants, Welsh miners marching penniless into London, among many other events, add rich detail to the historical nature of the piece, which covers a vast 70-year period. Clint Ramos' costumes are neat and period appropriate, allowing Beaty the easiest of changes when necessary, like doning the colorful cloak for Othello (picture above) .
As far as his writing is concerned, Beaty is also responsible for the recently mounted, engrossing Breath and Imagination a project about another phenomenal, but much less famous African-American singer Roland Hayes. Although this work has 3 characters onstage, Hayes is the central figure, introducing the other characters, so the style, the structure of the two plays is similar, putting the burden of responsibility on the main character. Beaty commands the stage as actor, under director Moises Kaufman's expert staging. Robeson's greatest speech before the committee in 1956 really socks home the message of America's negligence in allowing lynch terror and other vile mistreatments of African Americans. After Robeson became ill in the 60s increasing civil rights protests brought about several vital changes in the system, so his groundwork paid off. Go and see this important retelling of Robeson's life; you will be moved, enlightened and ferociously entertained by Daniel Beaty.