Yesterday we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it’s staggering to think about how much he accomplished in his lifetime and with his legacy. However, with any movement, there were others who were willing to march and willing to speak. Time fades the memories of many who marched and spoke. Some are noted in history with dim kindness until their stories are unearthed to be celebrated anew. There are also figures who when examined again leave a conundrum for people to unravel. The Tallest Tree in the Forest, currently playing at Arena Stage, tells the story of such a figure, Paul Robeson.
Robeson was at one point considered one the most famous African-American figures. Daniel Beaty both the writer and actor of this piece, succeeds in telling the audience of the experiences that both catapult and hamper Paul Robeson’s life.
Daniel Beaty possesses a wonderful singing voice and I very much enjoyed hearing him sing. While he does a good job in many cases portraying many different characters of many different areas. I’m afraid that his portrayal of women is terrible. His characterizations were lacking both physically and vocally. I understand that is different to play the opposite sex, but it can be done and done well. I was very confused by his choices in performance and feel that the work in its current state needs the addition of a female performer. Eslanda, Robeson’s wife, is too paramount of a character in Robeson’s life to be so ill performed.
The set designed by Derek McLane is both interesting visually and serves as an excellent framework for the many locations used in the work. But, I was very bothered by the heavy amount of fog used in the show. It didn’t add anything to the performance except giving both RJ and myself stinging eyes and headaches. I’m used to fog in shows and it doesn’t bother me unless it’s used excessively. Frankly, I’m peeved that my eyes and head hurt worse after The Tallest Tree in the Forest then after Les Miserables or Dracula. At least those shows had cause to use fog, why was there so much fog in this work?
While The Tallest Tree in the Forest does tell a worthy story and ask the audience to question whose liberties they exploit to maintain their own liberties, it does falter somewhat in performance.
Kari Liked: Beaty’s singing voice was absolutely wonderful.
Kari Didn’t Like: Beaty’s portrayal of female characters, especially Eslanda, did not work for me.
Daniel Beaty and Moises Kaufman attempt to do something quite daring in The Tallest Tree in the Forest. They attempt to tell the story of the very complicated artist and civil rights figure Paul Robeson through a one-man show. While their attempt is noble, it is too big a task for them.
This play is both written by and starring Daniel Beaty. The first thing I noticed is that he sings beautifully. In fact, the singing is my favorite part of the play. Beaty’s acting is powerful, when he’s portraying Robeson. When rendering other characters, his performance gets muddy pretty quickly, and can feel rather rushed when he has to go back and forth between people. As the show goes on, this task of performing different dialects gets the better of him, and it’s hard to tell which character is which nationality. His characterization of women, especially Robeson’s wife Essie, was a caricature and not fully developed. Moises Kaufman, of Tectonic Theater Project, could have helped with this pacing and performance issues through his contribution as director, but sadly did not. This play would have done much better with a small cast of perhaps maybe even just 1 or 2 more people to allow for more natural flow and focus on the characters instead of the facts of Robeson’s life doing the storytelling.
Paul Robeson’s life is certainly not a simple story and is great material for a play, just not this one. The levels of conflict, and the highs and lows he went through could be a great experience for an audience, but we need proper characterization and pacing to fully be affected by it.
RJ Liked: When Daniel sang, especially “Ol’ Man River”
RJ Didn’t Like: The confusion of all of the different characters and the lack of dramatic pauses.
(Arena Stage provided complimentary media tickets for this performance, however all opinions are our own.)