Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Intro to a Great Man, Sort Of (Paul Robeson celebrated at the Mark Taper Forum)
There is no doubt at all that Paul Robeson was a remarkable man. Gifted with an extraordinary, deep bass singing voice, he rose out of poverty to become the most celebrated black entertainer – and one of the most celebrated entertainers of any background – in America. He was also Ivy League educated, and credentialed as a lawyer, both of which fired in him an articulate but nonetheless passionate anger regarding racism, here or abroad.
One would assume most people know this, His confrontation with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was legendary, as was his love of the Soviet Union (at least in its early days). Still, according to Daniel Beaty, who wrote and performs “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” at the Mark Taper Forum, many nowadays do not. For that group, this new one-man show has a lot to offer. Yet, a single major element keeps the whole thing from being as good as it might have been.
Directed by Moises Kaufman, and making grand use of John Narun’s projection design, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” follows Robeson from youth to old age in flashes of dialogue, peppered by many of the songs the man was most famous for singing. Beaty plays all the parts, managing even Robeson’s ambitious wife without being silly. The tale strings together with greater power than one might expect.
Yet there is still one unfortunate, glaring issue.
Music is central to this piece, as it was central to Robeson’s life and career. Indeed, he is often considered the ultimate interpreter of that Hammerstein and Kern classic, “Ol’ Man River.” Yet, one reason he made this song so much his own was his treatment of the stereotypical, if well-meaning, lyric language. Robeson sang it all with careful and precise articulation, as a refusal to play down to the step-n-fetchit characterization so common in Hollywood and on Broadway at the time.
This is not what we get from Beaty. Though he also plays the music straight, the articulation isn’t there. His voice is a good one, if not as deep as Robeson’s true bass, but he slurs words and notes. Often. Sometimes to the detriment of the point the song is there to make. This would not be quite so annoying if it weren’t so far from the quality which was a defining characteristic of the man being celebrated.
Still, even as one trips up over the music issue, Beaty’s script is strong and his portrayal careful and grand, with occasionally fascinating results. It is also extraordinarily well researched. Though it is tough to get such a large life crammed into a couple of hours, he has picked highlights which truly show the evolution of a lawyer into an artist and an artist into a towering, politically controversial figure.
If people really do need to learn who Robeson was – a sad state of affairs, if true – then “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” would make a reasonable intro. Just go home afterward and look up film of Robeson actually singing those great songs. Then you will have the whole picture.
What: “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” When: Through May 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with some exceptions Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org