‘Tallest Tree’ examines what it means to be an outsider

At one point in “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” Daniel Beaty’s one-man show about the internationally renowned African-American bass-baritone and activist Paul Robeson, he tours the Soviet Union, which he has applauded for its anti-discriminatory laws about race.

But during this visit, around 1949, Robeson (1898-1976) feels a palpable change in the country he loves so dearly; citizens seem to be scurrying around terrified in the streets, and the newspapers are rife with anti-Semitism.

Directed by Moisés Kaufman and starring Beaty, “The Tallest Tree” opens at the Mark Taper Forum on April 19.  

When Robeson arrives in the U.S.S.R. for his tour in 1949, he immediately begins worrying about his numerous Russian-Jewish friends, who seem to have disappeared. Finally he is able to arrange a meeting with the esteemed Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who through notes and sign language reveals that he has been imprisoned for months as a result of the Stalinist purges.

During his final concert of the Soviet visit, Robeson speaks out about his “immense love for the Jewish people” and the Jewish connection to his own beleaguered African-American community, then launches into a performance of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song, “Zog Nit Keynmol,” in honor of his Jewish friends.

Then, upon his return to the United States, even amid news reports of the mass murder of Russian-Jewish artists and intellectuals, Robeson staunchly denies that any such atrocities have taken place. Robeson worries that if he criticizes the Soviet Union, it would undermine his argument that the U.S.S.R. is a model for race and class relations in the United States, he tells his wife, Eslanda, to her great consternation.  

He is loath, as well, to give the Americans further ammunition toward a possible nuclear war with the U.S.S.R.

“His stand on the issue is very problematic,” Kaufman, son of a Holocaust survivor and perhaps best known as the creator of the play “The Laramie Project,” said with passion in his voice during a telephone interview from New York. “His idea was that he would only speak about Russian problems in Russia, which is a very [difficult] statement. But those are the kinds of ambivalences that make the character worthy and interesting for dramatic purposes. … The reason I was drawn to the play is because Robeson was so powerful as an artist who was also a political commentator. Do I agree with all of his stances? Absolutely not. Do I think that his life is worthy of a narrative that can teach us all a lot? Yes.”

“I really tried to avoid any kind of hero worship in this play,” writer-actor Beaty, 37, said in an interview between rehearsals at the Taper. “Every human being has contradictions, but my goal was not to judge Robeson, to argue for his choices or vilify them. Rather, I wanted to get inside the mind, heart and soul of this human being, and to understand the character in the context of his time. … And I really tried to explore why this man who had such deep support from the Jewish community, and such a deep respect and love for that community, would make the choices that he did.”

In the play, Beaty sings 14 of Robeson’s songs (including classics such as “Ol’ Man River”) and portrays not only the artist-activist, but also some 40 other characters who have been influential in his life, accompanied by a musical trio and images projected onstage. The production chronicles Robeson’s beginnings as the son of an escaped slave, his years at Columbia Law School, how he became the first black man to perform the title role in “Othello” on Broadway and his staunch support of the United States during World War II.  Then there is his denunciation of the lynchings of black Americans, a number of them veterans, after the war; his tense marriage and numerous affairs; his fierce support of worker’s rights; and his refusal to recant his radical politics even when he became a victim of the McCarthyist communist witch hunts.  The consequence was that his concerts were canceled and his passport was revoked, effectively destroying his career as well as erasing him from popular history.

In fact, Beaty, whose previous one-man shows include “Emergency” and “Through the Night,” said he knew nothing about Robeson as he grew up in a fraught household in Dayton, Ohio. Beaty’s father, a heroin addict and dealer, was incarcerated at least 58 times during Beaty’s youth, and his older brother, a crack addict, also spent time in jail. It was Beaty’s mother, a social worker and the sole supporter of her five children, who proved to be his primary inspiration.

It was only when Beaty was studying classical voice at Yale and became fascinated by Negro spirituals that he chanced to discover Robeson and his recordings; riveted, as well as shocked and even upset that he had not previously heard about the formidable performer and activist, he vowed one day to turn Robeson’s life into a play.

While looking for a director about two years ago, Beaty’s first choice was Kaufman, 50, who had his own personal connection to the material. “Paul Robeson was one of those giants of the 20th century who had always really intrigued me,” Kaufman said.  “Here was a man who really was forced to make the decision between art and activism, and that has been a question that is quite important in my work.”

Kaufman’s own artistic activism stems from his multiple identities as an outsider: The son of a Romanian immigrant to Venezuela who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a dank cellar, Kaufman grew up attending an Orthodox yeshiva in Caracas, where he was terrified that his classmates might discover he was gay. “And then, as Jews, we were outsiders in this incredibly machista, Catholic country,” Kaufman said. In 1987, he immigrated to the United States, where he founded his Tectonic Theater Project and discovered that he was now labeled a “Latino.”  

“I’m a Latino, gay, Jew living on the Upper West Side, which is probably the only place in America where I fit in,” he said.

Kaufman’s affinity for outsiders — and his fascination with historical giants who fight for social justice despite their flaws — led him to write and direct “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” (1997) about the virtuosic 19th-century author and wit who was reviled as a homosexual and a radical aesthete in Victorian England. For “The Laramie Project,” he interviewed more than 400 residents of the infamous town where the gay student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998.  

Kaufman also directed and helped shape Doug Wright’s 2003 one-man show, “I Am My Own Wife,” which spotlights Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, East Germany’s most famous transvestite, who survived both the Nazis and the communist regime, even as she ran a gay salon in her basement, by serving as an informant for the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police.

“It’s all about how we approach history,” Kaufman said of his controversial characters. “Do we approach Paul Robeson just as the person who did not speak out against Stalin because he was murdering Jews, or do we also show that Robeson was a great ally of the Jews for many years and also was a man who created great possibilities for his own race? He can be both. And that is one of the great things that theater can do: It humanizes both our grandeur and our folly.”

To stage “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” Kaufman and Beaty each read numerous biographies of Robeson, watched all his films, perused newspaper interviews with Robeson and listened to all of his recordings. “Both Daniel and I had what I would call a talmudic approach to the material,” Kaufman said.  

To portray some 40 characters on stage, Beaty said, he probed “each character’s inner life. I would ask myself, what does the character want, what is in his journey that’s urgent for him, and what are his contradictions? And then I allowed their inner life to inform their external life — their body language and voice.”

Robeson, who suffered a stroke that would eventually kill him on Dec. 28, 1975 — the exact day Beaty was born — explains his reasons for his complex choices toward the end of the play. 

“The artist must take sides,” he said. “He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I made my choice.”

For tickets and information on “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” visit.centertheatregroup.org.