The Tallest Tree in the Forest
The legendary Paul Robeson once said, "As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this." Carrying his message of equality, the right to create one’s own destiny and peace, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," a one-man biography of Robeson’s life, debuts this month at the La Jolla Playhouse and will play through Nov. 3.
Conceptualized, written and performed by Obie-winner Daniel Beaty, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest" blends story-telling, music, a brilliant set and a soulful baritone voice to bring Robeson’s complex and controversial life to the stage.
The son of a runaway slave, Robeson lost his mother in a house fire at the age of 6 and poverty forced him, his father and brother into an attic apartment. His high school years saw him take on his first Shakespearean roles as well as joining the school choir. He particularly excelled at football and basketball which gave him the tools he needed to become a football All-American at Rutgers University. It was, however, his academics that landed him the scholarship he needed to attend the university.
He enrolled in Columbia Law School where he met his future wife, Eslanda "Essie" Goode. It was his powerful voice that received him the most attention and led to his Broadway, Hollywood, and international touring career. Always an outspoken advocate for the rights of minorities of all races and backgrounds, Robeson riled the ranks of the FBI, the former Soviet government, even the Black community in America. He pulled few punches in his criticisms and sought equality even in the most inconvenient moments.
Paving the way for the likes of Sidney Poitier, Robeson was a trailblazer in the truest form and "The Tallest Tree in the Forest" is one of the most important plays to hit San Diego this year.
Daniel Beaty’s talents are on full display in this production. The proverbial triple-threat, he is the actor, the writer and the vocalist in this one-man show. Displaying the characters in Robeson’s life, Beaty’s delineation is some of the best I have seen on stage in quite some time. Even in conversations with three or four people, his characters are clear, visible and well-rounded. He is marvelous to watch as he brings the self-burdened life of Robeson to the stage.
A perfect complement to a superb performance, Derek McLane’s set is as large as the personality on stage but appropriately subdued. Elements of the stage are lost until necessary and work well to amplify the dramatic effects employed by Beaty and director Moises Kaufman.
Little needs to be said about Kaufman whose work is already well-known to Playhouse patrons. One of the most sought-after theater directors in the country, this oeuvre lives up to his legacy and the material wholly fits his style. This one will fit nicely in Kaufman’s extensive and successful portfolio.
A wonderful little orchestra led by Music Director Kenny J. Seymour provided a terrifically tuneful backdrop to Beaty’s baritone vocals. Clint Ramos’ costume design and David Lander’s lighting design created flexible and engaging set pieces that helped bring this story to life. A full set of characters also creates a unique problem in producing appropriate dialects and Paul Meier, dialect designer and coach, must also be mentioned. To create a well-balanced show, every button has to be buttoned and the keen attention to every detail was not overlooked.
A superb effort for its first time out, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest" is a must-see. Engrossing, essential, and exceptional, this is one story you will never find in a history book. Unfortunately.