If you haven’t heard of Paul Robeson before seeing The Tallest Tree in the Forest, Arena Stage’s play won’t just make you surprised by that fact. It will make you angry.
And that’s part of the purpose. At one point, this Moises Kaufman-directed production explains, Robeson was the most famous and beloved African-American in the world. Originally making waves as a Jazz Age singer, the classically educated man rose to stardom in the Broadway premiere of Showboat (yep, he’s the guy who made “Ol’ Man River” iconic), and only became more renowned from there. He then transitioned into activism, fighting for the rights of labor workers and blacks. But a trip to the Soviet Union, where he was wowed by the country’s protection for equal rights (at the time), caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, and sympathetic remarks about Russia once Stalin came into the picture made him a target for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The resulting fallout nearly wiped him from the history books.
Daniel Beaty is determined to bring him back. In this one-man production the charismatic performer and writer (program notes tell us he happened, eerily, to be born the same day Robeson died) embodies not only Robeson but also his wife, famous figures, and any character necessary to tell the man’s biography. Beaty, as seen in his other productions at Arena such as Emergence-SEE!, is the kind of performer who can slip seamlessly from role to role without jerky transitions. He also has an effortless way with accents and posture that makes each character convincing in his or her own right.
Kaufman’s play has the feel of a cinematic biopic: Lighting tricks can feel like close-ups, and a brick backdrop can act as a screen at some points for historical footage and other tricks (the use of shadows to illustrate a segment on lynching is a haunting technique). And like a Hollywood biopic, Tallest Tree is more interested in celebrating Robeson than critiquing him—but it isn’t dishonest. Character flaws such as infidelity are part of the summation, and Robeson isn’t above questionable actions, such as his decision to speak out against Russia’s sudden oppression of its Jewish citizens there, but not on his home soil.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest smartly uses music to move along Robeson’s story, including classics such as “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and spirituals like “Get on Board Lil’ Chillun.” The show directly addresses Showboat’s complicated relationship with race, and Beaty’s several versions of “Ol’ Man River,” one with rewritten lyrics, demonstrate how the song can be, at turns, problematic, heartbreakingly beautiful, and powerful.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest is at Arena Stage through February 16. Running time is about one hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $90) are available via Arena’s website.