Paul Robeson is best known for his breathtaking performances of the song “Old Man River” which quickly became his signature piece. He enjoyed acclaim both in the United States and internationally in the early 20th century for both his singing and his acting prowess in productions such as “All God’s Chillin Got Wings,” “Emperor Jones” and “Showboat” as well as a handful of movies. In 1930, he made history as the first African American to play the role of Othello opposite a white woman at London’s Savoy Theatre and then made history again when he reprised the role in 1943 at New York’s Shubert Theatre. Despite his immense popularity and the love that people had for him on stage and on the screen, Robeson was still subject to the harsh discrimination that all African Americans were victims to in the United States.
Robeson used his celebrity to speak out against racial injustice and be heard both in the United States and internationally. He took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations, supported Pan-Africanism and lended his voice to sing for protestors to help bring publicity to their plight. He also visited the Soviet Union on several occasions and became enamored with their culture and ideals. Namely the fact that black and white people were seen as equals. He and his wife even contemplated moving there to raise their son in this environment. However, as Robeson was the son of former slaves, he felt that he couldn’t abandon all of the people back home that didn’t have the advantages that he did.
In the end, it was his steadfast refusal to abandon his belief that the Soviet Union’s equality ideology was to be admired and mimicked – even after visiting during the cold war and seeing first-hand the squalor and repressive regime bearing down on his friends – that was Robeson’s downfall. Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and labeled as a Communist, effectively ruining his career and taking away his platform to speak out against racial injustice. As the cold war came to a close and McCarthyism seceded into the background, Robeson regained some of his former accolades, but the damage had been done. His true legacy of activism and speaking out for those who had no voice faded into the background, and he became known as the man who set the benchmark for all future performers of the song “Old Man River.”
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” written and performed by Daniel Beaty embarks on an unflinching retelling of Paul Robeson’s life. Performed as a one man show, with a live band on stage for accompaniment, Beaty explores all aspects of Robeson’s life from his childhood, to acting career, activism and even his tumultuous relationship with his wife Essie. Beaty is a consummate performer and he delivers a commanding performance with a spine-tingling rendition of “Old Man River” that would make Robeson proud. While Robeson is definitely painted as a sympathetic character in this production, Beaty and director Moisès Kaufman do not shy away from acknowledging Robeson’s foibles. It is because of those foibles that Paul Robeson does not easily fit in to “a comfortable black history” as they call it in the play. However, that does not make his story any less relevant. “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” is a powerful play with an important message about a man that deserves to be recognized for all that he tried to and did accomplish.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest”
Center Theatre Group
Through May 25
Tickets: www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or (213) 972-4400
Kat Michels is a writer, two-time Telly and Regional Emmy award-winning documentarian, poet, Los Angeles theater critic and above all else storyteller. Her children’s book Children Have Got to Be Carefully Taught was released in January of 2014 and is now available on Amazon. www.katmichels.com