"I was the most famous black man in the world," says Daniel Beaty, who portrays Paul Robeson in his solo play The Tallest Tree in the Forest. (The title is a sobriquet given to Robeson by a reporter who learned of his impressive background.) The son of a former slave, Robeson constantly set the bar high for himself. A valedictorian, All-American football player at Rutgers, and graduate of Columbia Law School, Robeson was a beloved singer and film star worldwide as well as a stern advocate for anti-imperialism. In 1943, he became the first African-American to play Othello on Broadway.
In the play, Beaty lends voice to more than 40 people and sings about a dozen songs as he studiously tells Robeson's life story. His stable of characters includes everyone from Robeson's father, brother, and wife, Essie, to reporters, to J. Edgar Hoover and President Truman.
Beaty masterfully makes each role come alive, and as a result, the audience gets lost in how real it all seems. Even when conversations include multiple characters, Beaty effortlessly allows each of them room to possess the spotlight without losing momentum during a multiple-character conversation.
Beaty is joined onstage by a piano player (music director Kenny Seymour) and a two-woman orchestra (Rita Eggert on flute, Aron Rider on cello), who keep up with Beaty's larger-than-life performance.
Although the music plays a secondary role to the much more compelling story, Beaty's deep baritone is ideal for the spirituals that he sings, such as "Get on Board Lil' Chillun," "Go Down Moses," and the much livelier "Happy Days Are Here Again." He's a gifted singer, conveying the emotion necessary for these songs to pack a punch.
Directed by Tony-nominated Moisés Kaufman, well known to Arena audiences for stellar productions of 33 Variations and The Laramie Project Cycle, Beaty utilizes the entire stage, taking advantage of a multitude of old microphones positioned around the set. A multimedia backdrop adds another layer, projecting old footage of select events that shaped Robeson's life.
The script moves from one part of Robeson's life to another and digs deep into his political activism in the second act. Though the show runs nearly two hours, it feels as if a lot of Robeson's life was glossed over. Still, chances are that Beaty's play will encourage audiences who are unfamiliar with Robeson's work to learn more about him, thereby bolstering Robeson's reputation as "the tallest tree in the forest."