Showboat to China: Daniel Beaty channels the communism-lovin’ stage star Paul Robeson.
Showboat to China: Daniel Beaty channels the communism-lovin’ stage star Paul Robeson.

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This season, Arena Stage has cornered the market on one-man musical plays centered on the biographies of prominent, male African-American entertainers. For the holidays, the man of 90 minutes was septuagenarian tap dancer Maurice Hines, reminiscing about his life in showbiz. This month, it’s actor Daniel Beaty’s turn, supported by an excellent jazzy trio as he portrays Paul Robeson, another great performer of the 20th century, albeit a more groundbreaking and far more controversial one. Perhaps Arena could have spaced the shows further apart, but consecutive shows with similar structures can be perfectly tolerable, as long as they’re, well, good.

The Tallest Tree in the Forest proves to be a very solid rendering of Robeson’s story, delivered with outstanding sound design, production, and music. The show opens with—what else?—Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River,” the Showboat anthem chock full of racial stereotypes, slurs, and a catchy refrain about a Mississippi River that just keeps rollin’ along.

“It’s not a bad little ditty, is it? I made that song famous and that song made me famous,” Beaty says, going on to acknowledge that the character he’s playing is remembered for being much more than a singer. The show then lurches quickly back and forth in time, from Robeson’s boyhood days in New Jersey to his ardent work as a pro-Communism civil rights activist.

These opening moments of the show are its weakest. It only takes a few measures to realize that Beaty does not have Robeson’s voice, which was sonorous even at bottommost ranges. He would probably improve if he worried less about trying to sound so much like Robeson. But Beaty, who also wrote the script, is determined to channel his character.

Marketing materials say Beaty plays 40 different people in Tallest Tree, but he’s really more of a narrator who frequently pauses to impersonate others as he tells his own story. As directed by Moisés Kaufman, a veteran of ensemble projects, the strategy works, with the exception of an inherently confusing early scene in which Beaty alternates between voicing Robeson as an adult; Robeson as a child; Robeson’s teenage brother; and Robeson’s father, a former slave. But once Robeson heads to Columbia and is sucked into the Harlem Renaissance, the show gets hopping, aided by music, projections, and Beaty singing Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumpin’.” To depict a party attended by the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, a giant image of an art deco dining room is projected onto the back of the stage and complemented by faux chandelier lighting. (John Narun created the projections, while David Lander designed the lighting.)

Stymied by prejudice and lured by celebrity, Robeson leaves his law firm to star in a Eugene O’Neill play, and his career as an actor and singer quickly takes off. Soon Robeson is starring in a long run of Showboat in London when he begins to work in earnest as an activist. The inspiration, as Beaty recounts here, was music. Welsh miners sing and protest in the streets, and Robeson joins them, eventually singing “Go Down, Moses” on the Parliament steps. This scene is powerfully conveyed by two-story-tall historical footage of the march, and choral music blasted via surround sound. The Welsh singalong didn’t necessarily raise the ire of J. Edgar Hoover, but the singer and actor’s longstanding love of Russia was the stuff the Red Scare was made to demonize. Robeson first traveled to the country in 1934 and stubbornly believed communism could lead to a prejudice-free utopia. When hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, Robeson refused to condemn communism.

All of this is treated sympathetically in the play. Beaty believes Robeson’s failings were more personal than political, manifestations of a pride that frequently came before his falls. He doesn’t gloss over Robeson’s philandering with his onstage Desdemonas, including eventual Oscar winner Peggy Ashcroft. The best impersonated character in the play, by far, is Robeson’s wife Essie, a scholar in her own right who stuck it out not only as Robeson’s spouse, but as the business manager he should have listened to more. Beaty depicts Essie by pulling back his shoulders, narrowing his voice, and raising his eyebrows. There’s only one time in the play that he actually makes a costume change to portray another character, and that’s when he comes onstage wearing a dreadlocked wig at the beginning of Act II, playing present-day Columbia University professor Jamal Joseph. Robeson’s not Harriet Tubman, Beaty says, channeling Joseph. “Robeson doesn’t fit into that comfortable black history.” But Robeson’s story does fit comfortably well into this one-man history play.