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The Tallest Tree in the Forest At Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 21, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

Paul Robeson is a name that many may not recognize in modern day America.  If you’re among those wracking your brain to recall his legacy, you can thank J. Edgar Hoover who did everything in his considerable power to erase the memory of this brilliant performer in the American conscious.   In Arena Stage’s latest production, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, the reason becomes very clear as to why one of our once most lauded African-American icons is remembered by so few.

For Actor/Playwright Daniel Beaty, the history and legacy of Robeson has become a mission – – for Director Moises Kaufman, who originally commissioned this one-man show as its Artistic Director, its page-to-stage reality is a dream come true.

As the show opens Beaty enters from the top of what appears to be a backstage fire escape leading down to a simply dressed stage.  He is singing “Ol’ Man River”, the great Negro ballad penned by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat, the iconic production that was Robeson’s Broadway debut.  Beaty’s voice is a rich bass-baritone, deeply etched with emotion and suffering, a true reflection of the artist.  There will be twelve more songs, plucked from the pantheon of Negro spirituals and Harlem heyday Jazz tunes, to echo the highlights of Robeson’s life and career.

Robeson was a big man in every way.  The famous educator and Civil Rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune, once referred to him as “the tallest tree in the forest”, and it stuck.  Well respected as a stage and screen performer, he was also known as a scholar, an athlete and political activist, and to his enemies, a “firebrand”.

Early New York friends with connections to the theatre led him to a life on the stage.  And there he might have stayed, if not for his commitment to use his celebrity to fight for human rights and against racism.  His experiences put him in solidarity with the oppressed who found a sympathetic voice in Robeson, who had been Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University where he was their first African-American graduate – – the outspoken student later receiving his law degree from Columbia University.  Later, through his worldwide concert tours, he used his influence to rally for social change wherever he went.

In Lenin’s idyllic Bolshevik Russia of the 1920’s, where he witnessed Blacks, Jews and Chinese working together for under Communism, he claimed to have experienced real freedom.  “For the first time in my life I was treated as a man.  Not just as a Negro,” he would say, though he found things quite different during Stalin’s reign.

The music in this production played by Pianist/Conductor Kenny J. Seymour and backed by two musicians on multiple instruments is rich with meaning and the history of Black America’s struggle.  “Go Down Moses”, “Battle of Jericho” and other powerful spirituals echo the pre-Civil Rights era and serve to highlight Robeson’s life and times.

When he brought his experiences and idealism back to America in the early 1950’s he came up hard against Hoover and McCarthyism and the “Red Scare”, a repressive movement that was just beginning to gain steam in tandem with Robeson’s powerful ascent as an activist and performer.  Outspoken and fearless, he was branded a traitor.  Ultimately it was his unapologetic stance at the House Un-American Activities Committee’s trials that blacklisted him destroying his reputation and costing him his career.  “The artist must take sides.  He must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery,” he had declared.

Beaty plays 40 different roles in this riveting production, segueing effortlessly from male to female, black to white, young to old, and American to foreigner, imitating his family, friends and considerable enemies.  Told through sketches and vignettes, the course of Robeson’s life and career are highlighted by projections from actual newsreels of the day.   You’ll revel in Beaty’s Robeson, as complicated and vibrant and larger-than-life as the man himself.

Highly recommended.

Through February 16th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in Tectonic Theater Project’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo by Don Ipock

Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in Tectonic Theater Project’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo by Don Ipock.


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