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“The Artist Must Take Sides”: A Triumphant Must-See One-Man Show about Paul Robeson

Ed Rampell The Tallest Tree in the Forest opens, appropriately, with the banging of a gavel, literally signaling that Beaty’s interpretation of Robeson is not going to be just a depoliticized depiction of an advocate of some vague notion of “Americanism.”
Paul Robeson

The Tallest Tree in the Forest Theatre Review

Writer/performer Daniel Beaty doesn’t miss a beat in his stand-up-and-cheer (at the top of your lungs!) one-man show about and tribute to Paul Robeson. He was the Princeton, New Jersey-born son of a runaway slave who went on to become the African American actor/ activist/all around Renaissance Man who -- before Malcolm, Ali, Huey and Angela -- rocked America with his outspoken politics, boundless talent, intellectual prowess and imposing physical stature.

The Tallest Tree in the Forest opens, appropriately, with the banging of a gavel, literally signaling that Beaty’s interpretation of Robeson is not going to be just a depoliticized depiction of an advocate of some vague notion of “Americanism.” The briefly heard gavel is a reference to Robeson’s 1956 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, mostly unfolding in chronological order, Beaty’s drama leads up to.

The first word out of Robeson’s mouth is the plural of the “N” word as he sings the number from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat that was written specifically for the already renowned bass-baritone and Paul turned into a hymn and personal anthem. I’m talking, of course, about “Ol’ Man River,” of which N.Y. Times reviewer Brook Atkinson wrote: “Mr. Robeson has a touch of genius. It is not merely his voice, which is one of the richest organs on the stage. It is his understanding that gives ‘Old Man River’ an epic lift. When he sings...you realize that Jerome Kern's spiritual has reached its final expression.” The musical, which opened on the Great White Way (sans Robeson) in 1927, deals with the theme of miscegenation (race was a recurring theme for Hammerstein, who went on to co-create South Pacific in 1949 with its great anti-prejudice plot and poignant song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”).

Robeson went on to perform the stevedore part from Broadway to Buckingham Palace (for a command performance) to Hollywood, appearing in the 1936 screen version directed by James Whale (of Frankenstein fame!). According to Beaty’s one-man show it was while Robeson was in Britain that he became increasingly politicized, as he was swept up in a mass demonstration of Welsh miners, whom he used his star power to support, thus charting a course wherein Robeson would use his celebrity status to advance movements. Call it “cause celeb.”

Backed by a live three-piece band, Beaty performs about 15 songs on the Taper’s stage, including a rollicking version of “This Joint is Jumpin’” by Fats Waller as a paean to the Harlem Renaissance Robeson was part of. In doing so, the playwright/thespian/crooner -- who incarnates up to 40 different roles, including female parts, during his one-person show -- reveals himself to be multi-talented like his subject, who was renowned as an academic (Robeson graduated from Rutgers in 1919 as class valedictorian and went on to attend Columbia Law School) and athlete, as well as a singer, actor and activist.

Much to Beaty’s credit his well-written play unabashedly focuses on Robeson’s radicalism, which took him in the 1930s to the Soviet Union, the first of many visits to a country which embraced Robeson and where he is welcomed by Beaty, who briefly plays the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (whose subsequent collaboration with Robeson as Dessalines in a film about the Haitian Revolution, alas, never materialized). Paul spoke glowingly about the USSR, which set him on a collision course with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, whom Beaty periodically portrays to good effect as, in a precursor to COINTELPRO and today’s NSA surveillance, was spying on Robeson.

The one-man show, which Beaty extensively researched, also details Robeson’s troubled marriage to Essie and his alleged affairs with white women such as actress Uta Hagen, who played Desdemona opposite Robeson’s Othello on Broadway. Throughout the play Beaty slips into the Essie role by affecting a limp wrist, higher pitched voices -- and a biting, pushy, bitchy attitude. Beaty’s portrayal of women is a weak link -- his characterization of the title character’s mother in Breath and Imagination -- The Story of Roland Hayes is likewise incredibly annoying. That bio-play about another musical Black pioneer, which Beaty wrote but did not appear in during its run last September at Burbank’s Colony Theatre, depicted this classical singer’s struggles with his mother as being almost as dire as his clashes with white racism. Essie is similarly nitpicking and henpecking in Tree (although, to be fair, when the chips are down she admirably stands by her man). The playwright spoke about his troubled childhood during a talkback following the play (and does so in a new book), wherein his father was an oft-arrested heroin addict, his brother a crack cocaine addict and he was raised by a “powerful, dynamic mother who displayed tenacity” in what Beaty actually called “a traditional inner city” home. In any case, you don’t have to be Dr. Freud to deduce that Beaty appears to be projecting his own attitudes towards women into his plays, and their depictions are frankly irritating; the Essie character is Tree’s weak link.

Paul Robeson

Nevertheless, the rest of the play is good to great. Robeson’s dissatisfaction with his stereotypical screen roles in movies like 1935’s made in Africa Sanders of the River is recounted, although his final picture -- Frontier Films’ 1942 Native Land, asort of docudrama about homegrown fascism, which Paul narrated -- is not (well, in a two or so hour play you can’t cover everything). Robeson’s postwar visit to the USSR where he attempts to criticize Stalinism and his tête-à-tête with that Cold Warrior cracker Pres. Harry Truman at the White House in an effort to get anti-lynching legislation passed is bold stuff. As is Robeson’s performance at the Peekskill concert that broke out into a riot, with armed rednecks attacking unarmed Reds and other progressives.

And Robeson’s defiance when he was subpoenaed to appear before the gavel-thumping House Un-American Activities Committee is very powerfully performed and well-done. Not content with blacklisting Robeson so he couldn’t perform at home (and earn a living) during the HUAC/McCarthy era, the State Department revoked the artist’s passport, so he couldn’t sing or act abroad, where he was still much in demand. (A different Robeson one-man show claimed his annual income during these hard times dropped from $100,000 a year to $2,000.)

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I was surprised to read in Martin Duberman’s Robeson biography that prior to his appearance before HUAC Paul was deeply depressed. However, he rallied himself as the inveterate anti-fascist rose to the occasion and confronted the Committee’s rightwingers. While many groveled and sang like birdies before HUAC Robeson boldly stood up to and even mocked them. Repeatedly asked HUAC $64,000 question -- “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” -- Robeson courageously retorted:

Paul Robeson

Photos: Craig Schwartz

“What do you mean by the Communist Party? As far as I know it is a legal party like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Do you mean a party… who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?”

When one of HUAC’s not-so-grand inquisitors persisted in asking Robeson if he was a CP member Robeson spat back: “Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?”

Heady, insolent, heroic stuff (needless to say it was years before Paul got his passport returned), which is evocatively rendered onstage, if not verbatim. By not muting Robeson’s sharp politics Beaty shrewdly heightens the inherent drama of his life, which was a lifelong battle for equal rights. As to whether Robeson was indeed a card carrying member of the CPUSA, before writing this review I asked a current Party member, who claimed not to know. Perhaps the best answer would be the one the Black Panthers gave when asked how many members they had: “Those who say, don’t know. Those who know, don’t say.” LOL!

In any case, Robeson was definitely anti-racist, anti-fascist (the play depicts him being hassled by stormtroopers at Berlin as he is en route to Moscow), pro-socialist and pro-Soviet, especially incurring the wrath of the postwar U.S. government when Robeson publicly proclaimed that Blacks would not go to war with the USSR and fight for America, decades before Ali refused to ship out to Vietnam. Although Robeson sang a Yiddish song in the Soviet Union as a rebuke to anti-Semitism there (Tree reminds us of that historic grand alliance between American Blacks and Jews), he declines to criticize the Soviet Union on U.S. soil in order to avoid providing fodder for Cold War propaganda.

Overall, this is a highly entertaining, meaningful, dramatized history lesson. Moisés Kaufman ably directs his “ensemble cast” and John Narun’s projections enhance the production. The highest compliment a critic can bestow upon The Tallest Tree in the Forest is that it does justice to its subject, that towering talent, intellectual and activist who proclaimed and lived out thecredo that “the artist must take sides.” Bravo Paul and Beaty! This is the perfect play to see to celebrate May Day -- if you miss seeing this dramatic treat, Dear Reader, it only means you just can’t see the forest for the trees.

The Tallest Tree in the Forest plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., through May 25 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. (NOTE: No 8:00 p.m. performance on May 3; no 6:30 p.m. performance on May 11; no 1:00 p.m. performance on Sunday May 25.) For more info: www.centertheatregroup.org/; (213)628-2772.

ed rampell

 Ed Rampell

The new book Rampell co-authored is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).