Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest
Also see Susan's review of Bang the Drum Slowly
Beaty has a commanding presence: although he is shorter than Robeson's six foot three, he conveys the man's massive physicality through his proud, unbending posture. He also has a trained voice that, while lighter in timbre than Robeson's reverberating bass, shines in the spirituals and popular songs the man made famous.
Robeson, whose father had been a slave, became the third African-American student at Rutgers University, graduating as class valedictorian and a football All-American. Next he graduated from Columbia Law School, supporting himself as a singer. Because of racism in the legal profession, hewith support from his wife, Essiebecame a performer full-time.
The play begins in the middle of Robeson's life, when he leveraged his celebrity into outspoken advocacy for human rights around the world, then shifts back to his boyhood and continues chronologically. After years of performing success in London, New York, and in films, Robeson courted controversy by visiting the Soviet Union and, upon his return, speaking about the lack of racial prejudice he saw there. (Beaty's Robeson acknowledges seeing how Stalin's forces cracked down on Jewish intellectuals, but he refuses to speak against them in the U.S. because he doesn't want to become a pawn of anti-Communist politicians.)
Director Moisés Kaufman ably helps Beaty shift into and out of some 40 different characters, from Robeson's brother, father and wife to newspaper reporters and even President Harry S. Truman.