When I see the name Moises Kaufman linked to a project I circle the date at once. He’s been involved with some of the most thorough, serious, and moving pieces in recent years: The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, 33 Variations, and I Am My Own Wife – the latter two originating at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Daniel Beaty’s The Tallest Tree, which Kaufman directs, tells the life of the great Paul Robeson, actor, singer, activist. It could rank among the others, in time, though it needs refinements.
Not Beaty’s extraordinary performance. He sings with an ocean-deep baritone, he plays countless characters on the spot, including both sides of dialogues, and carries himself much in the formal, declamatory manner – a tad stiff and gestural, by design – that was Robeson’s hallmark.
The performance is a tour de force, with stunning choices along the way, as when the pre-teen Robeson sits in a chair and begins signing the great spiritual “Steal Away.” Then he rises. By the time he’s fully erect, he’s aged Robeson’s voice 50 years.
If anything – and this feels so odd to say – Beaty over-virtuosos the evening. He’s brilliant every step of the way, which gives spectators little breathing room. In effect, he can wear an audience down. Breaking the show in half, with an intermission, helps.
Since Beaty plays almost exclusively to the front row, including the rest of the house would also help, as would more rising and falling arcs, and more attention to the inner person than merely having him torn between the advice of his brother (“push back”) and his father (“push anger down”).
To his credit, Beaty’s script isn’t mere hagiography. Robeson (1898-1976) was an All-American end at Rutgers, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, a poet, lawyer (Columbia), social activist, and a renowned actor/singer. He was the first African-American to star in a movie (The Emperor Jones). He became “the most famous Negro in the world.” In just about every venture he was Jackie Robinson-like.
His travels gave him a perspective few African-Americans his day could have. He lived the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s; he saw Berlin and the rise of Fascism in 1934; he visited (and idealized) Soviet Russia before Stalin began his most notorious purges. And he saw America and Jim Crow racism in every city and town.
But he didn’t see everything. And made mistakes in what he reported, like the harassment of Jews in Russia and his calling Stalin “My beloved Comrade.”
(In one of the most brutally ironic remarks of the 1950s, Jackie Robinson labeled some of Robeson’s comments “silly.”)
Robeson was blacklisted and, an anguished time the piece barely touches on, near suicidal from a nervous breakdown. He was a titan – the “tallest tree” - and his fall the stuff of tragedy.
The La Jolla Playhouse/Kansas City Rep co-production is a world premiere. You wouldn’t know it from the first-rate design work. John Narun’s videos project workers’ strikes and vast crowds on the bare, ancient stage walls of Derek McLane’s set.
Four musicians accompany Beaty’s stirring renditions of “Ol' Man River” (the first word in the show is the N-word), “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” and “The Joint is Jumpin'.”
At times the group sounds like an entire orchestra. That’s because Lindsay Jones’s sound design ranks among the most effective in recent years. Every word, every note, is crystal clear - and this in the Potiker Theatre, with its tricky high ceiling and bleacher-raked seats. Excellent work.