The Tallest Tree in the Forest, San Diego

Written by:
Josh Baxt
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Written by Daniel Beaty
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.
Oct. 10 – Nov. 3, 2013

Paul Robeson—singer, actor, activist. His profoundly beautiful voice could move mountains, even when giving an interview. For two hours, Daniel Beaty takes on this iconic figure. His performance is energetic, but the results are mixed.

Robeson was an enormous figure, both physically and historically. The son of a freed slave, he went on to get his law degree at Columbia, but racism at a New York firm derailed his career. Fortunately, his immense talent as a singer and actor propelled him to success.

Beaty, who also wrote the script, excels at the singing and generally does a good job depicting Robeson. But the show veers into difficulty when Beaty tasks himself with a wide variety of other characters, including Robeson’s wife, young Paul, Harry Truman and many others.

Nowhere is this more problematic than in his portrayal of Essie Robeson. A well-known anthropologist, Essie was apparently a good match for her larger-than-life husband. However, when Beaty mimics a female voice and thrusts his hips to the right, he seems more campy than dramatic. She’s a caricature rather than a fully realized character.

Beaty also has troubles with some of the accents, particularly those of a Welsh miner and a Russian friend. While there’s no questioning the actor’s commitment, the results simply fall short.

Paul Robeson openly sympathized with the Soviet Union, which in his eyes treated African Americans with greater dignity. For this, he was blacklisted and openly reviled during the Cold War. However, the play has trouble choosing Robeson’s response. At times, he seems naively surprised that Americans would call him a traitor for simply speaking his mind. At other times, he is adamant that he must take a stand, regardless of the consequences.

While the set and lighting are well done, some of Moisés Kaufman’s directorial choices are not quite on point. For example, Robeson sings a Yiddish anthem from the Warsaw uprising. This could be an exceptionally powerful scene, and Beaty delivers the goods, but a video scrolling subtitles undercuts the moment. While the translation may be of some intellectual benefit, the passion and context make them a distraction.

The trouble with one-man shows is there’s nowhere to hide. Either the actor carries the narrative forward or he doesn’t. While Beaty’s performance is passionate, the portrayal of secondary characters is not quite believable. It’s unfortunate; this is an important story that should be told.

Josh Baxt

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