BWW Reviews: A Moises Kaufman World Premiere Opens Kansas City Rep's 2013-'14 Season

BWW Review: A Moises Kaufman World Premiere Opens Kansas City Rep's New Season

With the excitement over the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Dream" speech quietly receding from the national stage, it might be a good time to examine the life of another twentieth century human rights giant.

Though far less frequently told, the story of African-American Paul Robeson trumps even Dr. King's in its scope: An internationally famous singer; an Ivy League-educated lawyer; a Hollywood film star; a promising college athlete; and, most germane, an outspoken human rights advocate-Paul Robeson was all these things, and in its season opener, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, along with director Moises Kaufman and solo performer and writer Daniel Beaty, tries for a complete portrait of this compelling figure.

It's a lofty order, and the Rep's show, THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST, makes its task that much harder by wrapping all of Robeson's years into a one-man, one-evening affair--not even a complete onstage biography of Dr. King has been attempted (the recent THE MOUNTAINTOP focuses on just the last evening of that figure's life).

The piece depicts Robeson's life using the screenwrighting conventions of the "bio-pic." It more or less begins in Robeson's boyhood, where he quickly learns the reality of racism in America; highlights his football-playing years at Rutgers; depicts his eventual career choice of singing over law; and crescendos with Robeson's forays into international human rights matters.

Some feel the bio-pic is a canned way to tell a story, but Beaty's swift, fluid writing style holds well. The text does have a few off notes along the way, though, as when the young adult Robeson is awed to attend a party of the Harlem Renaissance elite, making references to Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston that fall with a flat, perfunctory clunk.

But Beaty's onstage depiction of Robeson is note-perfect, and achieves a handsome authenticity in gesture and dialogue. The performance is brought along greatly by Beaty's vocal presence. He absolutely nails the hit parade of Robeson's signing career in a beautifully controlled lyric baritone--the iconic "Old Man River" from SHOWBOAT; and the gospels "Get on Board Little Chillin'" and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" are standouts.

Unfortunately, the show isn't content to stop with Beaty as Robeson, as he attempts to play scores of the disparate characters in Robeson's life and times: his wife Eslanda ("Essie"); various Russian dissidents; striking Welsh miners; English and American newspaper reporters; U.S. congressmen; even President Harry Truman.

Simply, Beaty lacks the requisite skill for this: His accent and dialect work is weak at best, his movements are tentative and stiff, and he shows little ability to quickly drop out of one character and into another. Though certainly not a comedy, it sometimes seems the show tries for a GREATER TUNA-type tour de force in the rapidity of its portrayals.

It has to be asked why two or three utility players weren't brought in to help take the burden from Beaty by portraying the more demanding characters. In fact, his opening night performance often seemed uneasy.

What is right about Beaty's performance--and there is much--is exquisitely supported by many of the theater's best designers and technicians. Derek McLane's set--a raised platform backed by metal grid-like structures and flats plastered with various posters and signage of Robison's career--allows for an easy flow. This background is used by projection designer John Narun to back up Beaty's textual narration with period crowd scenes, photos and title cards.

And sound design by Lindsay Jones is tight and crisp. All of the above are making their KC Rep debut.

But perhaps the most striking design element is David Lander's lighting. Lander, who last worked at the Rep on WINESBURG, OHIO, uses a bank of multi-thousand-watt fresnels to great effect, shining tremendous walls of candlepower on Beaty during his most dramatic speeches.

All said, kudos should go to Beaty and to Kaufman, whose Tectonic Theater Project commissioned THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST. Perhaps their ambition here has outpaced the reality. But their attempt is a noble one, highlighting an often overlooked chapter of American history that, as Robeson himself did, takes great risks.

Photo by Don Ipock

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