Before the benign celebrity activism of George Clooney and Bono came into vogue, there were the outspoken politics of Paul Robeson. The son of a slave, Robeson was a popular singer and actor whose career was stunted when his pro-union, anti-racism stance and Soviet sympathies landed him on a McCarthy-era blacklist.
“My goal has been to delve in the heart and mind of Robeson,” says Daniel Beaty, author and star of “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” a one-man musical tribute at Arena Stage in which he plays 40-plus characters. “This play asks, what was it about Robeson’s character, his journey and the people he met that caused him to choose activism at the expense of his art?”
How were you introduced to Paul Robeson?
I first learned about him when I was a student of classical voice at Yale University. I have always loved to sing spirituals and Robeson has some of the best recordings. When I learned about the breadth of what he had accomplished, I became upset that I had never heard of him. None of my friends had heard of Robeson either.
And what did you find in your research?
He is a complicated man with flaws and contradictions, like all people. The height of his fame as a black man enabled him to see what most could not. He felt clear about his perspective on the world and sacrificed everything for it. The more time I spend with him, the richer the work becomes.
Why write his life as a one-man show?
There was something bold and virtuosic about Robeson’s life and career. By portraying over 40 characters and singing 14 songs … I feel it somehow honors and mirrors the size of Robeson.
Doesn’t it get lonely?
There is a huge family of dynamic artists gathered around this production. My director, Moises Kaufman, and I have been working very closely for over two years at this point. So I don’t feel lonely.
Is there a modern-day Robeson?
I believe artists who use their platforms to advocate for causes they believe in are embodying his spirit in some way.
So what makes an artist a good activist?
Artists have a crucial role to play in social transformation. Not just in our ability to inspire with our art, but in what we understand about communication. The best artists are masters of empathy and human behavior.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; through Feb. 16, $40 -$120; 202-488-3300. (Waterfront)