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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Tallest Tree in the Forest
Arena Stage

Also see Susan's review of Bang the Drum Slowly


Daniel Beaty
In his time, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was among the most famous African Americans in the world: singer, actor, lawyer, athlete, and human rights activist. Playwright-performer Daniel Beaty restores Robeson to his rightful, larger-than-life stature in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a one-person play now in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage in Washington.

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, he—with support from his wife, Essie—became 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.

Arena Stage
The Tallest Tree in the Forest
January 10th - February 16th
Written and performed by Daniel Beaty
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Sixth and Maine avenues SW, Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Don Ipock


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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