Performer and writer Daniel Beaty does an excellent job in portraying all around Renaissance man Paul Robeson. He doesn’t leave anything out no matter how delicate it might be, in speaking of his dalliances with other women. Beaty uses mixed media, in this case live musicians on stage, while a film is projected on a large screen showing passersby living in Harlem, to convey the Robeson presence better.
In talking about the actor’s family, Beaty beautifully explains Robeson’s tumultuous relationship with his father, whom he loved and cared for deeply, but still was at war with each other. When he bravely told his father, the Reverend William Drew, that he wanted to become a singer, his said no that he will be attending law school instead. In the end, Robeson accomplished both goals. He freely expresses his admiration for his older brother Reeve who taught him how to fight their father but also introduced him to Homer’s great works The Iliad and the Odyssey — in Greek—at a young age. Even as a child, Robeson was extraordinary. He graduated from Rutgers University in 1919 and Columbia Law School in 1923. It was working in his first law firm where he was a victim of racism. While the other attorneys worked cases, Robeson worked on writing briefs for the white lawyers. He eventually went into acting with the help of his future wife Eslanda “Essie” Goode, who became his manager.
In between telling the story, Beaty reached within his heart and sang with a booming baritone voice the songs that made Robeson famous like “Ol’ Man River” from the 1927 movie Show Boat. Beaty also revealed Robeson’s affairs, which Essie knew but choose to look away. He spoke about Paul Robeson, Jr. and what it was like being the offspring of a legend. Where Beaty really gets to the source on who Robeson really was takes place during his trips with Essie, overseas. In the Soviet Union, he was widely accepted; he spoke at the World Peace Council in Paris in 1949. Simultaneously, his passport was revoked. He was blacklisted during the witch hunt of McCarthyism, looking for anybody who even smelled like a communist. Robeson had more than 99 problems to handle.
Beaty never missed a beat when he quickly changed characters. He had over 20 where he executed effortlessly. His passion shines through with every note, word and movement. He is the real thing and his show is incredible to watch and learn.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest plays Tuesday – Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. until Sunday, June 1st at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Mark Taper Forum. The theater is located at 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. For ticket information, call (213) 972-7353 or reserve online at www.centertheatregroup.org.