Paul Robeson doesn’t fit into “a comfortable black history,” says one of the dozens of characters played by Daniel Beaty in his slick, sober solo drama, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest.”
Indeed, he didn’t. He was a football star and a college valedictorian at Rutgers, an international singer and actor who became the first black Broadway “Othello” — and who, although married, slept with both of his Desdemonas (Peggy Ashcroft and Uta Hagen). A lifelong political crusader, he fell in love with the Soviet Union for its lack of American-style racial prejudice, yet he stumbled into playing stereotypical African natives and U.S. field hands in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood projects.
He sang the “N” word in his signature tune, “Ol’ Man River,” and was slow to criticize Joseph Stalin. Yet in the 1950s, he told off the House Un-American Activities Committee in no uncertain terms, in part because Harry S. Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were more interested in stopping international commies than local lynchings. In short — although there may be no good short way to tell his twisting, heroic story — Robeson embodied deep American frictions as few other individuals of the 20th century did.
Beaty gives this panorama his all in “Tallest Tree” at Arena Stage, which is presenting the world premiere co-production from the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse. Beaty sings “Ol’ Man River,” “Ballad for Americans” and other tunes in a stentorian voice, accompanied by the subtle trio of Kenny J. Seymour on piano, Rita Eggert on clarinet and flute, and Aron Rider on cello. He plays Robeson as an old man and as a child, and plays all the parts in dialogue scenes between Robeson and his father, his brother, his wife, his admirers and his adversaries.
Director Moises Kaufman, well known as the ringleader of “The Laramie Project,” bundles this into an efficient package that’s handsomely hued with the tea-brown tones of history. Archival footage is projected by designer John Narun on the back wall of Derek McLane’s simple yet highly theatricalized set; the stage is a nearly bare platform with a couple of desks and books, framed by old-fashioned stage lights above and microphones below. As Beaty moves and morphs, David Lander’s lighting is pinpoint.
Kaufman is known as a careful researcher, and he is no stranger to stories about complicated, outsize figures: He’s the author of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and the Beethoven-inspired drama “33 Variations,” and he was the original director of “I Am My Own Wife,” Doug Wright’s first-person chronicle of an unlikely transvestite who outlasted the Nazis and the East German communists. “Tallest Tree” is presented in association with Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, and the collaboration between Kaufman and Beaty has been underway for some time.
Why, then, does this juicy history feel slightly rushed and melodramatic? Tons of information — too much, really — gets poured into conversations between Robeson and his embattled wife, Essie. These terse, touchstone exchanges do the necessary business of summing up each current conflict as Beaty’s script hurtles across the years, but the dialogue is terribly on-the-nose. You don’t entirely buy the shorthand scenes of Essie’s comically cute efficiency as she woos Robeson, their rote marital discord as Robeson declares his sexual independence, and then the political blowups encapsulated in a spat.
As for the melodrama, some of that is earned. Robeson’s battles were titanic, and it’s hard not to choose in Robeson’s favor when the FBI starts hassling him and when whipped-up jingoists trigger the notorious riot during a concert appearance in Peekskill, N.Y. Beaty does mine Robeson’s troubling shades of gray during a tense Cold War encounter with a Jewish poet friend imprisoned in the Soviet Union, yet often the questions and dialogue feel blunt.
Even so, “Tallest Tree” is never less than composed, and although Beaty’s acting is a trifle too noble to be consistently interesting, it never lacks for grace or strength. Seldom bothering with costume changes, Beaty gives voice to everyone from Truman to Langston Hughes and Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and his clarity is a blessing. As a writer, his instincts are sure for the highlights of Robeson’s tempestuous career.
It’s a vast surface to race across, with crises wherever you pause. Robeson is a magnetic subject, bristling with talent and political heat, and Beaty is a serious, hardworking curator. His show is instructional and not quite fully ablaze with Robesonian charisma and conundrums, but it certainly throws off sparks.
written and performed by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Costumes, Clint Ramos; sound design, Lindsay Jones; music director/incidental music and arrangements, Kenny J. Seymour. About two hours. Through Feb. 16 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets, $40-$120. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.