BWW Reviews: When Art Meets Advocacy in Arena Stage's THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST
"I was the most famous black figure in the world!" Paul Robeson exclaims. "But that's not how you think of me now. Is it?"
Indeed, Robeson is not bragging when he makes that declaration at the beginning of The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Sadly he has almost been forgotten. But why?
Written and performed by Daniel Beaty, Arena Stage's The Tallest Tree in the Forest examines what happens when art meets advocacy and the inherit tension between the two as experienced by the late entertainer Paul Robeson. This uneven and yet very promising play uses music to raise keen questions about how we as citizens and patrons of the arts view artists when their work turns from sheer entertainment to something more civically advantageous.
Robeson does have a remarkable life and Beaty has worked hard to ensure that nothing is left out. Born and raised in New Jersey, Robeson's father, who was born a slave, taught him to, "Push that anger down - that is what it takes to stay alive. Learn from my experiences, climb up if you can, but always show white people you are grateful." Climb up is exactly what Robeson did, graduating valedictorian from Rutgers and becoming a lawyer.
When Robeson's law career saw professional limitations due to his race, he became a singer climbing up in the entertainment world as well. He would perform before Duke Ellington, rose to fame singing "Ol' Man River" in the original London production of Showboat, star in movies and become the first African American actor to play the title role in Othello on Broadway.
Despite being enormously talented Robeson was restless as a performer. And as he describes it in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, "My artistic success is not enough. We need to find a political system that works - a system where the African people and the Negro people are treated as equals."
His search for that system would start during Showboat's run in London where Robeson became politically active after getting involved in a miner's strike. Seeing many similarities between the treatment of workers and the racial prejudices experienced by African Americans and Jews, Robeson uses his star power to travel the world fighting for racial, religious and employment equality. His activism takes him across the United States, Europe and eventually, in 1934, to the Soviet Union - which he sees as a model society. This ultimately catches the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee and eventually the world.
Beaty gives a powerful performance in The Tallest Tree in the Forest. As the sole actor in the show he inhabits more than thirty characters and does a remarkable job making these characters come alive. One trait we see in every character is that they are all searching for something. For Robeson, it's a cause and an equitable world beyond the fame and applause he has attained. Those surrounding him, especially his wife Essie, search for a way to bring Robeson inner peace. Watching as these personalities collide is what makes the piece fascinating.
If playing every character wasn't enough, Beaty is also required to sing. He's wonderful performing the perennial political favorite "Happy Days Are Here Again," the patriotic "Ballad For Americans" and soulful "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel." However, his nice but underwhelming rendition of "Ol' Man River" is problematic. For if the audience is to believe that Robeson was a great performer then the opening number has to be powerful. Sadly, it wasn't. The opening is also emblematic of a bigger issue, and that is the unevenness of the play's structure. Much of the opening scene seems intent on cramming too many details as to why we're supposed to care for Robeson's story. Thus making it feel chaotic. We go from Robeson triumphing with "Ol' Man River," to the Paris Peace Conference of 1949 where he would be labeled a traitor, to his life following a stroke in 1975 and all in a few minutes. Rather than being shown, we're told that Robeson was a superstar of his era. It prevents the audience from truly experiencing his story and coming to that conclusion on their own.
Furthermore, there are several times during the play when the audience is left to question various plot holes. Act I concludes with Robeson's triumphant first visit to the Soviet Union and Act II opens with a professor explaining why Robeson is forgotten before flashing back to his performance at a 1942 fundraiser for American war bonds. How is it that Robeson, who so disdained the racial culture in the United States and championed the Soviet experience, could then turnaround and sell war bonds?
Fortunately these are very fixable structural issues and if corrected, the play has great potential. The conflict between artist and advocate is what makes The Tallest Tree in the Forest a compelling story and one that continues to raise questions today. Even Robeson is puzzled by how audiences can hold differing opinions of his work and beliefs. Insult is further added when he's called a traitor simply for expressing the reality of race in America following World War II.
Derek McLane's set and John Narun's projection designs are compelling and greatly to add to the play as they recall the moments that shaped Robeson's beliefs. They achieve this by projecting various images and film clips onto the back wall. One impressive scene has Robeson meeting with a friend in the Soviet Union. It's clear that the friend was recently jailed and realizing their meeting room is bugged, they communicate using a notepad and pencil. Their messages are projected behind them to a chilling effect. McLane has also filled the stage with a collection of microphones, costumes from Othello and a ghost light, which like Robeson's beliefs, shines throughout the play.
Moisés Kaufman's direction isn't as successful in focusing the piece. In addition to the opening scenes structural problems, his direction adds to the feeling of the show seeming frantic and rushed at times. He has also done something quite unforgivable which is to use sound effects to signify dramatic moments. The audience is smart enough to realize that when the FBI is monitoring Robeson that's significant and Kaufman needs to trust that his audience recognizes that.
Beaty is joined onstage by a three-piece band. Kenny Seymour's arrangements and music direction help enhance the feelings of Robeson's concerts and performances. Since music was a monumental aspect of Robeson's life, having the band onstage as part of the story was a very smart decision.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest features a creative team who has terrific experience excelling in one-person shows. Kaufman and McLane served in the same roles for the 2004 Tony Award Winning Best Play I Am My Own Wife. Together with Beaty, who again is incredibly talented, they should be able to strengthen this piece. The interchange between the arts and advocacy is too crucial for the life and lessons of Paul Robeson to be forgotten.
Run time is two hours with one intermission. The Tallest Tree in the Forest plays thru February 16th at Arena Stage 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or purchase them online.