Growing up in a Dayton, Ohio, in a family he describes as “rife with addiction and incarceration,” the actor and playwright Daniel Beaty says he didn’t learn about Paul Robeson until he got to Yale.
“I was a student of classical voice,” Beaty, 38, says over the phone from New York. “I’ve always loved the negro spirituals. And as a student, I looked for recordings of singers, particularly male singers, who did wonderful recordings of the spirituals.”
Before long, he found the singular, stirring bass voice of Robeson.
“At first I was just so moved by the voice, then I became curious about the man behind the voice,” he says.
“When I discovered the breadth of what he had done — that he was a scholar, an athlete, a huge star of stage and screen, and this international activist — it really at first upset me that I had not heard of him, then motivated me at some point to do something to make sure other people knew who he was and what he had done in the world.”
The result is the one-man show “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” which plays through Feb. 16 at the Arena Stage, directed by Moisés Kaufman.
For both, it’s a return trip. Beaty’s play “Resurrection” was staged there in 2007, and he performed his one-man “Emergence-See!” the following year. The Tony-nominated Kaufman directed his “33 Variations” and “The Laramie Project Cycle” at Arena.
For “The Tallest Tree,” Beaty plays 40 characters and sings 14 songs in the work he’s constantly refining. “It is exhausting,” he admits.
At the same time, he’s inspired by the work of Robeson, the singer who at his height was the best-known black man in the world but who, as a result of his political fallout at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, is not well-known today.
“For people of my generation and younger, unfortunately, people don’t know about him and if they do know something they say, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who sang ‘Ol’ Man River,’ or, ‘Wasn’t he a communist?’ Beaty says.
“For an older generation,” he adds, “what I mainly encountered in my conversation is a deep, deep love for who he was as an artist; for certain people, a huge respect for the stance that he took as an activist and some real sadness about how it all ended.”
Kaufman, returning to direct the play at the Arena after premieres in Kansas City and La Jolla, says he was struck with “how resonant his words are today, and how much the ideas are still pertinent and timely and of our time. He was a visionary in so many different ways.”
Both men say they’re excited about returning to the lively D.C. theater scene, where there is a diversity and political interest Beaty enjoys.
“I find that in D.C., people are interested in what your perspective is,” he says. “They may be quick to disagree with it, but interested in what the perspective is.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Through Feb. 16 at
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW.
or visit www.arenastage.com.